Josh Rouse: Folk-Pop’s Newest King of Cool

Rouse

If you think it’s easy to produce 12 consecutive albums of reliably laid-back folk-pop over ten years, you try it! In the tradition of J.J. Cale and Belle & Sebastian (when’s the last time you heard those artists named in the same sentence?!), Rouse is bringing “cool” back to a place it hasn’t been since Skip Spence strapped a guitar to his back and rode his motorcycle to Nashville to record Oar, that legendary specimen of psychedelic mastery he made amid a delirium of alcohol and schizophrenia which eventually sent him packing for the 13th floor at Bellevue. Now, I’m not nominating Rouse as a candidate for Jack Nicholson’s role in a remake of Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest–Skip did break down the door of a bandmate’s hotel room with a fucking fire axe in ’68 and spend the last 30 years of his life homelessly drifting the streets of Santa Cruz, after all–but Rouse commands exactly the kind of ethereal grit and immediacy that Skip Spence patented all those years ago.

Though it is apparent that someone ill-advisedly encouraged Rouse to get happier after his gorgeous third album, Under Cold Blue Stars–fraught as it was with sublimely broken-hearted masterpieces like “Christmas With Jesus” or “Ugly Stories”–there remains an unmistakable earnestness in Rouse’s delivery, his thin wail of a voice that melts in your ear like a lover’s whisper, the way he brings every ounce of bone and blood he’s got to the music he makes. I liked that version of Rouse, how somewhere beyond the gloss and syrup of “Feeling No Pain” stood a man who “might travel all the way to Mexico / with a pickaxe to put an end to things,” as Stephen Dunn put it in a poem once. If you can’t recall a time when life shoved you deep into the cushions of your couch with only a bottle of Yellow Tail and a song to accompany your defeat, then you can’t recall a time when you’ve lived. Those are the times I tend to welcome Josh Rouse into my living room like some forgotten friend I’ve trusted with my most private fears.

Skip

Alexander “Skip” Spence

Maybe I’m alone on this one, but I’m the kind of guy who knows he’s seen a good movie when he feels like killing himself by the time it’s over–stuff like Requiem for a Dream or Christine Jeffs’s tragically neglected Rain (try getting through that one without pissing from the eyes, tough guy.) It’s like my brother-in-law said as we split a bottle of jack we sneaked through the door of a Steve Earle show in New York City one night, “I like a song that hurts my feelings.” Amen, bro. And who better than a disciple of Townes Van Zandt–you know, the guy who sang about slitting his mother’s throat “just to get her pearls”–to deliver on our morbid craving, belting ballads like “Lonlier Than This” that echo from somewhere in the bottom of a bad blue dream.

Hailing from the curiously fertile creative grounds of Nebraska–an epicenter of indie-rock genius where greats like Conor Olberst make their home–Rouse began his childhood of changes in a place called Paxton, constantly moving from town to town as the son of a military man back when the sounds of Neil Young or Fleetwood Mac dominated FM radio, bands that tip-toed into the distance of songs he himself would produce years later. There are many diamonds to mine from Rouse’s prolific oeuvre, but the most glittering among them span a sonic bridge between the ambient levity of Fleetwood’s “Gypsy” and the dour minimalism of Young’s “Albuquerque,” a musical stew that’s every bit as delicious as it sounds.

If much of Rouse’s music is no heavier than a breeze at the beach in spring–particularly on the supine Subtitlio he recorded after splitting with his wife and defecting to Spain (as good a reason as any to be “supine”)–it is no less substantive because of it. And anyway, just when you think you’ve got this cool cat cornered, an album like 2005′s Nashville thunders with a vaguely unsettled dirge like “Why Won’t You Tell me What,” a spare and thumping chant that delivers the kind of bluesy acrimony you’d expect of a middle-aged loungesinger at some watering hole up the block, positioning his 14th cigarette in an ashtray on the lid of a beaten piano that’s knifed with the names of a thousand long-gone couples. Amid the apparent serenity of Rouse’s more recent material–breezy tunes like “Quiet Town” or the flawless “Hollywood Bass Player” from 2007′s Country Mouse album–it’s this defiant strand of discontent that completes the complex character his songs reveal, a ballsy volatility that so many songwriters might be wise to consider.