Nebraska-born alt-country troubadour Josh Rouse is nothing if not prolific. Country Mouse, City House is his seventh album proper in nine years, discounting numerous EPs, B-Side collections and collaborations, and it sees Rouse settling into the style he has crafted over the last few records of his career – a beguiling mixture of laid-back ’70s easy listening and tremulous folk.
While this may not sound much like a match made in heaven, Rouse is a deft and charismatic writer, confidently intertwining influences as far-ranging as Neil Young and Sly and the Family Stone to produce yet another assured record.
While his contemporary, the similarly inexhaustible Ryan Adams, consistently fights allegations of concentrating on substance over style, the chronically underrated Rouse has, over the last few years, quietly gone about producing record after record of beautifully constructed pop songs, designed to creep softly into the hearts and heads of anyone who hears them. And if his new album doesn’t quite match up to some of his imperious work on previous records, it certainly hits enough marks in its short running time to be a worthy investment.
A marked improvement on last year’s languid Subtitulo, it sees little deviation from the formula that has won him plaudits, but not necessarily record sales, over the course of the last decade. After ditching the fuzzy Springsteen-esque Americana of early records Under Cold Blue Stars and Home, Rouse’s obsession with ’70s easy listening, and latterly Spanish folk music, have given the singer a new lease of life. The standout tracks here are the ones that mix the two styles – the steel guitars of Domesticated Lovers and opener Sweetie owe as much of a debt to Joao Gilberto‘s bossa nova recordings as they do Gram Parsons.
Rouse is a chronically underrated songwriter – his 2003 magnum opus 1972 so perfectly channeled the spirit and joie de vivre of the year of his birth it could easily have sat alongside the best moments of that era like George Harrison, Carole King and The Band.
Here he crafts some perfect vignettes – on the smooth and sleazy as black silk Italian Dry Ice he says of a former lover: “Sissy you told me that you moved to Rome / Fucking those Italians with expensive clothes” and on Domesticated Lovers he dissects a relationship exquisitely with “They go out to a restaurant, they don’t talk/ About the things that happened that day/ Or the new hairdo she’s got.”
He also seems to have the unnerving ability to skirt along the knife edge of almost comedic pastiche and pure pop gold, especially on Hollywood Bass Player, its Goodbye Yellow Brick Road faux-funk groove threatening to descend into mawkish parody before the ridiculously catchy chorus kicks in and you realise that, hey, that’s exactly what he wants you to think. Similarly, opener Sweetie feels like a pretty slight Eagles spoof before you realise that you’ve spent the last two minutes singing along to every word.
There are criticisms, of course. No one, not even Bob Dylan, could get away with being such a fertile songwriter without being a little profligate. There are no bad tracks here, just a couple that could have been given a kick up the backside in the recording process to take this album from unhurried gem to pure masterpiece, especially the wintery closer, Snow, which strives for atmosphere and ends up half asleep.
Judged on a first listen, especially those lucky enough to know Rouse’s work of old, the fleeting nature of the record may seem a little slight. However, every return listen unlocks a new layer of melody and enjoyment – this is a real treat for enthusiasts and converts alike.