osh Rouse needs to make a decision. He needs to decide between the alt-country crooner of Under Cold Blue Stars and Dressed Up Like Nebraska and the delicious A.M. pop homage of 1972. Or maybe I’m full of crap and Rouse needs to do little more than put out a well balanced album that nods to both his country instincts as well as the heady chime and jangle of his classic pop sweet tooth. Despite an album title that creates expectations of a much twangier ride, Rouse has successfully crafted both a love letter to his ex-hometown and an announcement to the world that he is a singer/songwriter of considerable talent ready to be recognized as such.
It would be easy to listen to Nashville and try to squeeze Rouse into a space already defined by the likes of Ryan Adams or Conor Oberst. But Rouse has neither the temperament nor prolific output of Adams, and bears little resemblance to the coy next big thing attitude of Oberst. Rouse seems to have arrived at Nashville more fully formed than either of those two. One gets the feeling that Rouse understands that the world need not be reinvented in dramatic fashion with each strummed chord. He’s happy to leave the superstar theatrics and posturing to others, while he remains as perfect, essential, and unnoticed as a pinky finger or atmosphere. Besides, Emmylou Harris is nowhere to be found on Nashville and without her requisite duet aren’t all songwriters who aspire to the throne of Gram Parsons dead in the water? That’s one of the best things about Rouse; despite the fact that he’s growing into the singer/songwriter tag very well, he’s carving out a niche that doesn’t necessarily point towards Parsons or Dylan or Young or any of the usual suspects.
Nashville is chock full of weeping slide guitar work, soaring harmonies, keyboards, and Rouse’s lonely breath of a voice pushing out from the relatively lush production. It’s a testament to Rouse and his bid to be considered as an accomplished singer/songwriter that he’s able to pull himself back from the edge of overdoing his songs. It must have been hard not to overwhelm the subtle beauty of a song like “Streetlights” with the bombast of a larger string section. Instead that song is buoyed by Rouse’s clever lyrics (he cops a bit of Journey in the chorus, “streetlights, people”), slide guitar, and a healthy though not syrupy touch of strings in the chorus. He’s wise enough to know that his ability to write a fine song is his strength, not the ability to adorn those songs in the excessive trappings of studio tricks or the bells and whistles that a large recording budget can provide. It’s this simple bit of wisdom that often separates our great songwriters from our good ones. It’s confidence in craft and it fits Rouse very well.
The album opener “It’s The Nighttime” is the stuff of which great pop songs are made. Pushed along on by a steel guitar, Rouse leaves us with just enough odd bits and pieces lyrically to make the song more than just a toe tapper. It’s a song about love, sure. But when Rouse tosses in the line, “after the late late show/We can go to your room/I can try on your clothes/I’m not the kind of man/to come on so strong”, the song is bent just enough away from the ordinary. Aren’t the little surprises on any album the greatest joys?
From beginning to end Nashville is a satisfying listening experience. Whether Rouse is penning upbeat sing-a-longs like “Middle School Frown” or piano driven ballads like “Sad Eyes”, he stuffs his songs with keenly observed details and enough fat hooks to bring a smile to even the most curmudgeonly indie rock snot. Nashville is a success if for no other reason than the fact that it exists as such a pronounced, focused step in Rouse’s career. This is a record that announces him as a singer-songwriter of note, and worthy of the accolades that will come.
Reviewed by: Peter Funk
Reviewed on: 2005-03-10