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Josh Rouse 

Under Cold Blue Stars (Rykodisc)

Wednesday, Feb 13 2002
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Josh Rouse has a way with words. It's not so much what the Nashville singer/songwriter says as how he says it -- a reluctant enunciation that unfurls like a slowly blooming flower. With his first two full-length CDs and a 1999 collaborative EP with Lambchop's Kurt Wagner, Rouse has laid claim to the role of the whiskey-tongued underdog, slurring his way through a host of great rootsy pop and country-soul compositions.

Though it doesn't seem possible, Rouse takes still more edge off his voice on his third CD, Under Cold Blue Stars. A loose concept record based around the lives of several couples, the album proves that the hazy Rouse mojo is still percolating potently. "Summer Kitchen Ballad" is Rouse at his best, as he lazily unravels the half-spoken stories and intimate allegations of two drunk lovers. "Later at the fire with a marshmallow stick/ You were embarrassed because she was so thin," he sings in the rocking-chair cadence of a front-porch conversation.

Rouse's cloudy voice works nicely on the CD's bigger rock numbers as well. He has a talent for writing simmering verses that boil over into big choruses, and his soft vocals offer an interesting contrast to the jagged architecture of anthems like "Feeling No Pain" and "Women and Men."

"Women and Men" also illustrates Rouse's easy touch with discordant, orphaned sounds, as he ties distorted guitar and strange vocal tics into the fabric of the song. Rouse shares Joe Henry's aptitude for tinkering art into even the most straightforward-sounding tunes.

Unfortunately, not all of Rouse's instincts are good ones. A self-declared '70s easy- listening fan, Rouse courts trouble when he slips into the schmaltzy vacuum of soft rock. In the end, Rouse needs music with enough bite to counter the dreamy seepage of his singing. Edgeless songs like "Ugly Stories" and "Under Cold Blue Stars" end up drifting into fluffy miasmas of roller rink keyboards and smooth vibraphones. The atmospheric material on Under Cold Blue Stars grows old quickly, with the vaguer numbers going limp halfway through the first listen and collapsing entirely by the third. There's a fine line between understated and underwhelming, and even Rouse's distinctive voice can't stop him from crossing it.

About The Author

Chris Baty

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