With the age of sampling and downloading music now feverishly upon us, it's unusual to find artists these days prolific enough to still put out collections of songs every year. It won't be long before making a record with some kind of cohesive unity will just be a quaint, old-fashioned notion.
That's why it's a relief to still find musicians like Josh Rouse doing just that.
With the recent release of Country Mouse, City House, his seventh full-length disc, Rouse has been putting out albums showcasing his shining, idiosyncratic, Indie Pop craft since 1998. Though not quite retro, Rouse's music is a throwback to the singer/songwriters of the 1970s. Like many of us, it's what he grew up listening to, so it shaped his own songwriting.
In Rouse's best records, ranging from his rootsy debut, Dressed Up Like Nebraska, to later ones like Under Cold Blue Stars and Nashville, there's a sweet sadness bleeding through the tracks. And the songs are enhanced by his boyish, cotton-light vocals that dovetail over his McCartney-esque melodies.
In the aftermath of a divorce, Rouse uprooted his Nashville home and moved to Valencia, Spain, in 2003. This international move was the catalyst for his last few records, including Subtitulo and the EP, She's Spanish, I'm American, which he recorded with his Spanish girlfriend, Paz Suay, as a duet partner.
But it turns out that he's moved back to the States.
As he tells me over the phone from his tour bus rolling through Idaho, "I still have a place in Spain, but I have moved to New York City -- we kind of have two home bases now. I lived in Spain full-time for about three years, though."
Having lived in Spain for a period of time myself years ago, I know how much a positive effect the Spanish, laid-back way of life can have on a person. Josh agrees. "I've actually mellowed out some more," he says, "and I think maybe I was mellow before. I move much slower now -- I even blink slow.
"Living in Spain is kind of like being on vacation, everything is slower," he says, laughing. "Maybe that's relaxed me even more. I'm not far from doing New Age, keyboard instrumental stuff. Maybe that will be my next record."
(Tongue embedded in cheek, don't worry.)
While it's true that most of Rouse's music shares a deceptively breezy, light vibe, there's still a definite streak of melancholy that threads through his recent material, which gives it more heft than you might think on first listen. His buoyant melodies rise to the fore as his reedy tenor floats over the chord changes. His best songs radiate a minimalist Pop confection that bubbles up into an all-encompassing soulful warmth.
It's no coincidence that John Mayer personally asked Rouse to open for him on a series of dates this year, even writing about him on his blog. Mayer's commercial sense and taste in music coalesce here. In a perfect world Rouse's music would glide over the FM airwaves and swoop down over the carrion of the playlists.
But there's no doubt that Rouse has reached a place of contentment in his life. You can hear the afterglow humming between the song grooves. Between his personal and professional lives, he's found a balance that works and he chronicles that in his songs. He makes a point of not being overly precious with his music either, believing that it's more important to just get his work out there, streamlining the whole process. He recorded the new CD with his band in six days in southern Spain.
"I showed my guys the songs on a guitar and we ended up recording two songs a day, taking about a week," Rouse says. "Sounds good, feels good and the songs are nothing that I thought about or worked on for a couple of years. I'm not working under that idea anymore. I think that's something imposed by labels, the music industry. I see this as more like the records by Neil Young or Bob Dylan, mid-career records. They would just get a group of songs in a certain timeframe and record them, releasing one or more records a year."
To facilitate the recording process, Rouse started his own, aptly-named label, Bedroom Classics, which enriches his modest approach, from song conception to release, with much more possibility. Not to mention, this removes the constant pressure of big labels and allows him to follow his impulses more.
His love for the '70s aesthetic even extends back to the title of one of his earlier records, 1972, made in 2003.
"Growing up in Nebraska, I listened to the radio a lot, whether Kenny Rogers, Fleetwood Mac or Bob Seger, it didn't matter so much," Rouse says. "The records back then sound warm and real and you're hearing true performances."
The implicit contrast with records made today complements much of Rouse's material. His low-fi approach to recording doesn't allow for a perfectionist's production, yet his songs still retain their polished hue without sounding like rough demos. On new standout songs, like "Hollywood Bass Player," "London Bridges" and "Sweetie," the arrangements gurgle with horn fills, Hammond organ runs and jazzy intros, plus his usual spare guitar and drums. Even if not exactly edgy, the songs offer space within their margins and never feel harried or too busy with overdubs.
Though not much of a departure from his earlier music, Country Heart, City Mouse illustrates Rouse's mild manner and talents as a singer/songwriter -- one of America's finer ones.
"The new record is just another chapter in what I've been doing all along," he says.
JOSH ROUSE performs Tuesday at the Southgate House with Maria Taylor. Buy tickets and find nearby restaurants and bars here.