Write and Wrong

When is a singer-songwriter not a singer-songwriter? When he's Josh Rouse.

The problem was, Josh Rouse was from Nashville. Well, he wasn't from there, but that's where he lived then, and where he lives now. And he sang and played guitar, sometimes an acoustic, wrote his own songs, wasn't in a band. It all added up to a paint-by-numbers portrait that didn't look much like him: "Josh Rouse, country singer-songwriter." That's what people were saying when his Dressed Up Like Nebraska came out in 1998, lazy journalists who were content to connect dots that weren't really there, writers who read more than they listened.

"That's not a good thing to be printing everywhere, because people that want the record or go to get it, that's not what they're gonna get," Rouse explains now. He's just come back from Europe, where he was promoting his new record, Under Cold Blue Stars, and he's about to leave again on a "huge-ass tour," 40 dates in 47 days.

So Rouse started explaining himself. The "country" part--or "alt-country" or "Americana" or whatever--didn't bother him too much; back then, there was at least a little truth to it. Had to look pretty hard to find it, but it was there, a remnant of growing up in the Midwest and living in and around Nashville. (Plus, as he says, "I mean, I am American, so it is Americana.") It was the second thing, the "singer-songwriter" business, that didn't sit too well. "I'm just a guy who sits on his couch and makes stuff up," he told Rolling Stone, among others. "I've never really considered myself a songwriter." He said the same thing a couple of other times, a few different ways. Said it in interviews, from the stage. The point, and it was hard to miss, was this: I'm a musician, not a singer-songwriter. Which was fine, except for the fact that, OK, fine, he was. Is. Kind of.

“When I hear ‘singer-songwriter,’ I think of John Denver or James Taylor or something like that,” says, ahem, singer-songwriter Josh Rouse. “And my music is just not that.”
“When I hear ‘singer-songwriter,’ I think of John Denver or James Taylor or something like that,” says, ahem, singer-songwriter Josh Rouse. “And my music is just not that.”

"Just because when I was younger, singer-songwriters kind of bored me," Rouse says. "Besides, like, Neil Young. I just don't think of him as a singer-songwriter; he is, but you know, I just thought of him as Neil Young. Or Tom Waits, or something. When I hear 'singer-songwriter,' I think of John Denver or James Taylor or something like that. And [my music] is just not that: I think the records are quite a bit more involved than just a guy with an acoustic guitar. I kind of wish I'd never said that." He laughs. "Because I am--I sing and I play guitar and I do write lyrics. So I am a singer-songwriter. It's just kind of that label that I don't like. Hopefully, people will just see it as Josh Rouse. And not Cat Stevens."

There's not much room for confusion anymore. Rouse sings all the songs on Under Cold Blue Stars and wrote most of them, and that's where the Cat Stevens connection ends. Under Cold Blue Stars is based around Rouse's voice and the words he sings, sure, but he's right: There's more going on under his Cold Blue Stars than a guy with a guitar and some songs. Like the best albums, it's difficult to pin down, to back into a corner and through a pigeonhole. One listen, it could be Steely Dan with a heart; the next, it's blue-eyed, blue-collar soul (check the Marvin Gaye what's-going-on whoop near the end of the title track); the next, R.E.M. covering the Smiths, or vice versa. And so on. On every listen, however, Under Cold Blue Stars is as familiar as a friend's voice, as comforting as a warm coat on a winter day, the kind of record you don't just hear, you feel.

Backed by a group including Pat Sansone (playing pretty much everything he can get his hands on), longtime collaborator David Henry and former Ben Folds Five drummer Darren Jessee, Rouse is nominally the leading man, yet he blends into the ensemble cast, standing in the spotlight while leaving plenty of room for everyone else. Produced by Roger Moutenot (known for his work with Yo La Tengo and Sleater-Kinney, among many others), the disc is a beautiful mess of cellos and trumpets, keyboards and tape loops, vibes and more keyboards, the music finishing Rouse's sentences instead of waiting for its turn to speak. More than most records, the music and lyrics need each other, feed off each other. "Sat in the kitchen with an asthma cigarette/Out the window with an inch of regret/It's a grey world," Rouse sings on "Summer Kitchen Ballad," but without Henry's cello, you don't really see it. "Lately I've been feeling no pain/My heart is wide-open and somehow everything falls into place/And it's love," he sings on "Feeling No Pain," but you probably wouldn't believe him if the summer-sun guitar line didn't break through the clouds. It's all or nothing here: Either you're watching the movie, or sitting with a copy of a screenplay and a stack of Polaroids.

Which is what Under Cold Blue Stars is, in a way: a musical film, a loosely constructed (gasp!) concept album, following the life and love and lack thereof of a Midwestern couple--a musician and his wife who inherit a farm in the South, he explains--all the "Ugly Stories" about "Women and Men" who "can't erase what the past is." Rouse may not like the connotations that came with being called a singer-songwriter, but he doesn't mind another label: screenwriter.

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