Josh Rouse's return to form

21:16, Mar 24 2013

In 2002 I was working in a music store and "alt-country" was the thing. It was fine to profess a love of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson because now it was all seen as informing a bunch of magazine-cover-stealing pinup boys and girls. I got turned on to a lot of great new music though; despite never enjoying the alt-country tag. The best players and writers transcended the (new) genre, stepped out and away from that tagline - it didn't ever (quite) suit them.

Lambchop, Wilco, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, The Handsome Family - there was always something else happening besides a debt to past country players. The writing was sophisticated - and that was, ultimately, what it shared in common with the best country music.

One name that I discovered at this time was Josh Rouse. His Under Cold Blue Stars album was an easy recommendation for those caught up in the world of Ryan Adams, the debut album by Pete Yorn and the music from the  underperforming but much-hyped Jesse Malin.

Under Cold Blue Stars was lovely and it sent me back to the earlier Home (2000) and 1998's Dressed Up Like Nebraska. I saw - and heard - references to the acoustic Bruce Springsteen and alt-country's mascot/hero, Gram Parsons. But, actually, my favourite early release from Rouse was Chester, the 1999 EP he created in collaboration with Lambchop's Kurt Wagner. (Wagner's lyrics!)

After that Rouse dispensed with the alt-country tag himself by releasing 1972 - an album that felt like so many things without actually being any of them. It felt like the early releases from Jackson Browne and James Taylor, traces of Paul Simon too and the Crosby, Stills & Nash offerings (together and alone) across the early/mid 1970s. It was sweet and lovely and if it felt contrived there was just enough pop-goodness there to get it over the line. It ended up sounding like a fresh new Josh Rouse album and people could enjoy it without noticing - or feeling - any nods to all the old heroes from the era the album was referencing.

It was followed two years later by Nashville, which might have wanted to hint back toward country but showed songwriting chops and arrangement ideas that brought to mind The Smiths and a laid-back version of the often feisty power-pop. Okay, so he wasn't quite Marshall Crenshaw but it was a new version of what Crenshaw had offered and the likes of Matthew Sweet and Michael Penn, the type of nailed-down pop/rock that is its own thing entirely and manages to hint at many influences without ever feeling like an obvious tribute.

And then he seemed lost. There were more albums. More EPs. But the quality was not there. I always gave him a listen - but it didn't ever stick.

A few weeks ago an advance copy of his new album - out this week - arrived. The Happiness Waltz takes me back to 1972 and Nashville, to the best bits of 2006's Subtitulo (about where I left Rouse's music, for the most part) and it reminds me of the best aspects of most of the names I've already mentioned in this post. Gorgeous melodies that feel familiar almost instantly - check out opening track, Julie (Come Out of the Rain) and the closing title track. And, well, you can do the rest of the YouTubing yourself, but Start Up a Family and The Ocean will tell you if this album is likely to be for you or not.

I like that it almost feels like guilty-pleasure music; great driving-out-to-Eastbourne-in-the-weekend music; perfect for-all-the-family music...

And if that's the kind of faint praise that feels damning I don't mean for that at all. The Happiness Waltz is a beaut; full of great songs, perfect playing and I like Rouse's voice. I can't find anything not to like about this album.

And that's always a good thing.

That's about all I wanted to say here.

It's nice to have Josh Rouse back. And I thoroughly recommend his latest, The Happiness Waltz.

Are you a fan? Or were you a fan? Have you heard the new album? Or will you check it out?

And what return-to-form from a favourite artist from a decade ago have you recently enjoyed?

Blog on the Tracks is on Facebook and Twitter.

You can also check out Off the Tracks for The Vinyl Countdown, reviews and other posts.