Josh Rouse sits at the table marked mellow singer-songwriter. For many he is a hugely underrated songwriter with a knack for a melody; for others he is a bit anodyne but when he is tapped into the source, to this writer’s mind, he is peerless.
From his 1998 debut “Dressed Up Like Nebraska” to the present day Rouse has been prolific and his career has seen peaks and troughs rather than one huge splash followed by a gentle tapering off as so common in the industry. His personal life took him to Spain in 2005 where he has lived on and off since. But they real key to Rouse is his pastoral loveliness with tune and lyric. Obviously I would urge you to investigate each album but should you wish a simple sketch of the man’s talents you could do worse than this list which as ever in these cases changes on a daily basis such is the depth of material.
Number 10: ‘Quiet Town’ from ‘Subtítulo’ (2006)
Gorgeous paean to the quiet life. Loved up and basking in a summer sun that seems never to set. This is the song of lazy afternoons, cats curled up in the sun and escapism all delivered with a gentle soft rock backing and Rouse’s easy, laid back delivery.
Number 9: ‘Life’ from ‘Nashville’ (2005)
‘Nashville’ is often considered the peak of Rouse’s oeuvre and it doesn’t disappoint if approached in that way but it is in no way the whole story. However this closing track is a downbeat slice of optimism delivered with hushed guitars, soulful harmonica and just the right amount of laissez-faire.
Number 8: ‘New Young’ from ‘The Embers of Time’ (2015)
2015 saw the release of this real return to form which features this beautifully world weary tribute to Neil Young circa Harvest. Piano and acoustic led with some of Shakey’s harp this chronicles thoughts of moving to the country (out on the weekend perhaps). The closing lines are the heartbreakers “dreamed about Neil Young last night, rolled out of bed and rubbed my eyes, I’ll never be that good, you know” On this track he damn well is.
Number 7: ‘Love Vibration‘ from ‘1972’ (2003)
From the album that celebrates the seventies comes a funky, Fleetwood Maccy kind of thing. In thrall to 70’s stompers this wiggles its hips to a beat cheered on by whooping backing vocals and a cracking melody that just explodes as the horn section come in and join the fun. All this with a streak of melancholy running through it like writing on a stick of rock. And the sax solo is a corker.
Number 6: ‘Streetlights’ from ‘Nashville’ (2005)
Another from this album, and it won’t be the last. Again shot through with melancholy and a sunny optimism. Starting with just acoustic the production feeds in piano and drums as if gently dripping icing on a perfect cake and when the strings appear the track just explodes into a joyous dreamy conclusion with pedal steel swooping along with the orchestra and then the final stanza with just Rouse’s care worn voice reminding us that it is just him and you.
Number 5: ‘1972’ from ‘1972’ (2003)
Opening with the title track and referencing Carole King was a bold statement. This is a perfectly judged swooning ballad that set the tone perfectly. Rouse’s vocals never more soulful as the restrained backing sweeps in. It’s a dreamy, sexy sound ‘screwing in a motel room, watching things on channel two‘ deliciously capturing a perfect mood of ennui.
Number 4: ‘Under Your Charms’ from ‘1972’ (2003)
More sexiness from the seemingly priapic Rouse as dazzling strings support this keening song of lust and desire. A simple shuffling beat belies the complexity of the song as backing vocals and gorgeous guitars battle for prominence with ultimately failing as Rouse’s vocals seal the deal with his whispered request for ‘contact’.
Number 3: ‘Pheasant Feather’ from ‘The Embers of Time’ (2015)
An almost folky delight from a later album. Beautifully constructed as a duet with Jesse Baylin and layered strings from Chris Carmicheal as Rouse considers his position “what is success good for if I’m down here on the floor”. A seemingly slight song that is given heft by the arrangement and yet remains equally affecting as a solo piece as Rouse demonstrated on his recent tour.
Number 2: ‘Julie (Come Out Of The Rain)‘ from ‘The Happiness Waltz’ (2013)
The perfect marriage of Rouse’s observational lyricism and his ability to narrate a story over an effortless melody. They’re all here – pedal steel, acoustic shuffle, melancholy delivery and even a mournful flute. A song of California grey with the dappled sunshine of opportunities and missed chances.
Number 1: ‘My Love has Gone’ from ‘Nashville’ (2005)
The ultimate Josh Rouse song. An opening with world-weary reflection and acoustic guitar that quickly morphs into a confident narrative supported by keys and snapping drums. Every time the chorus comes around there is another layer of production that just builds the song higher and higher before the final climax as everything comes together in a glorious blast of sunshine with just that hint of sadness deliciously lingering in the clouds beneath.