Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"Subtítulo," by Josh Rouse

Josh Rouse is just one theme song in the right "date movie," or just one fluke hit record away from being the biggest pop star on the planet. He’s the music world’s best-kept secret, and it was only coincidental that I stumbled upon his music almost a decade ago. I first heard of Josh Rouse in a radio interview in 2000 to promote his (then) new album, Home. On the strength of the few songs they sampled during the interview, I picked up the CD and have been a Rouse fan ever since.
Rouse's songs sound like they were lifted from the smooth, mellow-gold, singer-songwriter era of the early 70’s. In fact, Rouse’s music has always struck me as au fait with some of the best “un-hip” artists from that era: America, Neil Diamond, Bread, Don McClean, etc., and this hunch was confirmed by his 2003 album, 1972, in which he paid tribute to both his birth-year and that era of popular music. Further validating my hunch was Rouse’s appearance in the 2004 Bread tribute CD, “Friends and Lovers,” in which he performed “It Don’t Matter To Me,” the band’s top ten hit from 1970.

Like 1972, Rouse’s albums are almost always thematic, mostly finding him toiling away at love from various angles, most of them melancholic: loss of love (Dressed Up Like Nebraska), anxiety from love (Home), loneliness in love (Under Cold Blue Stars), etc. Subtítulo (Spanish for “subtitle”), however, is a significant departure for Rouse. Recorded in Puerto de Santa Maria, Spain shortly after ending his marriage, the album places Rouse in a completely new geographic environment: a sun-dried, balmy, beachfront town in southern Europe. From halfway across the world and even further removed from his former life, Rouse had begun a new relationship and seemed to be viewing love from the benevolent side for the first time on record.

For the Rouse fan, it was almost jarring to hear him in this breezy new musical environment, juxtaposing images of his newly adopted hometown with the joys of new romance. This isn’t the Josh Rouse from the past decade. Think Nick Drake covering the Jackson 5’s “ABC:” joyous, bewildering, and completely unexpected. The album opens with “Quiet Town,” a sweet, hum-along that revels in the charms of small town life. Still, even on this upbeat track, Rouse’s dark side is never far from the shimmery surface as he sings, “Ooh, sometimes I miss the show, I loved a long time ago…” At his cheeriest, Rouse seems unable to completely immerse himself in newfound bliss.

Summertime” is a faded summer vacation Polaroid from junior high, sitting by the pool, sipping iced-tea, and listening to Purple Rain without a care. But, as noted earlier, Rouse must be Rouse, and wistfulness can’t help but creep in: “And the feeling doesn’t last that long, before you know it it’s up and gone…the things we do.” The album also features sugar-sweet guest vocals from Paz Suay, Rouse’s girlfriend, on the call-and-response ditty, “The Man Who Doesn’t Know How To Smile.” Suay’s phrasing is reminiscent of Astrud Gilberto (“Girl From Ipanema”), and her voice serves a perfect counterpoint to Rouse’s. The quietest moment on the album, however, is the effortless, “Wonderful,” an intimate charmer that never quite rises above a whisper. Profound? Nah. Clumsy? Maybe. Truthful? Absolutely.

While a critic’s darling throughout his entire indie career, some reviewers took a left turn for this album, slamming Subtítulo as slight, pithy, and lighter than air, claiming that with his move to Spain Rouse had lost focus. But the subtlety of the album is precisely where Subtítulo gathers its strength, because sometimes in art, as with life, the most powerful sentiments are communicated with a whisper. And Subtítulo’s sentiment speaks to the sheer joy of falling in love. It’s about how when you’re in love, food tastes just a little better, colors shine just a little brighter, and life moves along just a little easier. So the guy who specialized in beautiful music about broken hearts found new romance and made an album of silly love songs…and what’s wrong with that?

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