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Music City Memoir

 

Josh Rouse: Nashville

Rykodisc, 2005

Rating: 4.5

 

Posted: February 24, 2005

By Laurence Station

Josh Rouse's fifth release, Nashville, is so effortlessly accomplished that it's easy to overlook the smartness of the songcraft and the crisp pop arrangements subdivided between an upbeat "A" side and more introspective "B" side. Indeed, on the surface, deceptively simple lyrics like "Life is good / Sometimes it's bad / It has its ups / It has its downs" (from the closing "Life") and invitingly warm production (courtesy of co-producer Brad Jones) create a classic '70s singer-songwriter feel. (From a purely superficial standpoint, fans of Bread, Boz Scaggs and Harvest Moon-period Neil Young will warm to the openhearted, professionally crafted tones of Nashville.) Even more than Rouse's gratuitously retro 1972, Nashville captures a mood and a melancholy at once as guileless as it is polished to a blinding, artful sheen.

Getting past the easy flow and ace musicianship, Nashville reveals itself to be Rouse's deepest record to date. From a biographical standpoint, it encapsulates the songwriter’s feelings on a city he called home for ten years before picking up and relocating to Spain. From the breakup of his marriage to the rapidly increasing proficiency of his singer-songwriter skills, Rouse articulates what living in Music City meant to his life. It's not so much a detached, rearview perspective as it is an up-close assessment of the influences and relationships, culture and geography that shaped his artistic and personal worldview over the past decade.

The urgent longing on "It's the Nighttime," conveyed by a simple acoustic strum before a fuller sound, including some aching pedal steel, kicks in, meshes flawlessly with Rouse's tale of budding romance between an uptown girl and a "downtown fool." "Winter in The Hamptons" unfurls at a faster clip, the tempo nicely complementing the fevered restlessness of Rouse's lyrics ("We have stayed too long"). “Streetlights” conveys the less-than-convincing self-help mantra "You will start today," buoyed by evocatively wistful string arrangements and a plaintively effective rhythm section. The album’s first half concludes on a high note with "Middle School Frown," a reflection on the vicious social games played by hormonally charged teenagers and one student who rises above it ("You held your head high").

The downside of Nashville, unsurprisingly, tracks the emotional tailspin felt by a heartbroken lover ("My Love Has Gone"), offering bourbon-smooth melancholia ("Saturday") and delicate piano tearjerkers ("Sad Eyes") with graceful aplomb. And then there's the swinging "Why Won't You Tell Me What," which sounds out of place on the backside of the album until you realize it's about a severe communication breakdown between two lovers. If the first half of Nashville can be loosely correlated with courtship and the excitement of life in a new city, the second half emphasizes dissolution and, finally, disillusionment as things fall apart.

Nashville validates the promise Rouse has exhibited since Dressed Up Like Nebraska, encompassing a gift for emotional detail and a fondness for simple, unadorned lyrics. It's an understated, impeccably played collection of heartfelt tunes about a time and place that can never be returned to. Leaving has rarely sounded so sweet.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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