Josh Rouse: Under Cold Blue Stars

Josh Rouse: Under Cold Blue Stars

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Josh Rouse

Album: Under Cold Blue Stars
Label: Rykodisc/Slow River

Singer-songwriter Josh Rouse has always been a distinctive vocal stylist, but on his third album, Under Cold Blue Stars, he molds his voice to fit mood and theme. Mistakenly identified with the alt-country genre after his rootsy debut Dressed Up Like Nebraska, Rouse's music has more affinity with the orchestrated, minor-key pop of Morrissey and The Cure. He plays with his heartland rasp in the manner of his idols, who write precise lyrics and then sing them as though each syllable were only loosely related to the one before. That method exemplified by "Ugly Stories," one of Stars' centerpieces. The song is about a married couple who spend much of their time apart, and about the rumors that spread in their small town. But while Rouse's lyrics mimic a pointed conversation, he obscures much of what his characters are saying by breaking words in two or slurring them together until they lose their directness, crafting a tonal portrait of people talking around each other. Rouse describes his latest as a song cycle about a Midwestern man and woman who fall in love in the 1950s, get married, buy a farm, and then struggle with finances and family. The story is mainly told through impressions, as the songs shift from the sweet, up-tempo, romantic "Nothing Gives Me Pleasure"—in the song, the phrase is completed with "like you do," although the abbreviated titular sentiment is also intended—to the more melancholy "Christmas With Jesus" and the title track. Then bitterness creeps in with "Ugly Stories" and the deceptively bright "Feeling No Pain," before the story ends with four successive songs of hard-fought reconciliation and acceptance. Under Cold Blue Stars was produced by Roger Moutenot (Yo La Tengo), who accentuates the tempered background guitar drone that Rouse prefers. The album's hypnotic passages and resounding moments all surround the singer's typically simple, memorable melodies, but the highlights of Under Cold Blue Stars are the lyrical phrases that Rouse chews up and blows out. The record's emotional apex arrives on the penultimate track, "Women And Men," which concludes a five-minute, despairing sketch of loneliness and isolation with a man returning to his wife. "Grass needs cut, cuddle up," Rouse suddenly enunciates, and the rationale behind the persistence of troubled relationships becomes touchingly, devastatingly clear.