When Josh Rouse first hit the scene, opening up for Aimee Mann for what seemed
like two years, he was clearly onto something good but had yet to find it. The
voice was a little unsure, the songs pleasant but not exceptional. It’s a phase
that all songwriters go through, and only the gifted ones come out the other
side. Mann herself needed to get a bad album out of her system before unleashing
‘Til Tuesday’s exceptional Welcome Home on the world. Michael Penn needed three
albums, hitting his stride on 2000’s MP4. Badly Drawn Boy’s Damon Gough,
meanwhile, still hasn’t figured it out.
It can now safely be said that Rouse has found what he was looking for. His
sixth album overall and the follow-up to 2003’s excellent 1972, Nashville
is not a salute to the town in the way that 1972 was a tribute to the year, but
no matter. It’s a sterling collection of folk pop that cements his reputation as
one of America’s finest songwriters.
Where 1972 was an exercise in stretching the boundaries, Nashville is
more focused, and it suits his songs well. The lovely “Winter in the Hamptons”
has the feeling of a lost jangle pop song from 1989, like something the Smiths
wouldn’t write so much as inspire someone else to write. “My Love Has Gone”
continues the ‘70s love-gone-wrong song vibe from 1972, the kind of thing that
Ambrosia may have done in their prime. “Sad Eyes” (not a Robert John cover)
begins as a simple piano ballad then blossoms into a string-drenched
showstopper. The liveliest moment is “Why Won’t You Tell Me What,” which owes a
considerable debt to Aimee Mann’s “Momentum” from the Magnolia soundtrack. Chock
full o’ barroom piano and a call and response chorus, it’s one of the rare
moments that Rouse lets loose and has fun for a change, something he should
explore in depth on future albums.
Josh Rouse has clearly found his way around a pop song. If there is anything
holding him back, it’s his tendency to mope a lot, as well as dwell on the past
(see “Middle School Frown”). Sure, songwriters all have a voice, and write what
feels comfortable to them, but even James Taylor would rock out every once in a
while. Nashville is extremely good, but in the process, Rouse has
revealed that he is capable of much more.