Josh Rouse – Subtítulo

Josh Rouse

Josh Rouse has never made any secret of his desire to be more than just another Americana singer/songwriter. After his roughly sketched – and still loveable – debut with 1998’s Dressed up Like Nebraska, his commercial ambitions soon took hold of his muse, resulting in 2000’s homogenous sophomore set Home and 2002’s OC-friendly Under Cold Blue Stars. Perhaps realising that laser-copied slickness wasn’t entirely his bag, Rouse reincarnated himself as a 70s white-soul revivalist on 2003’s unpretentiously fun 1972 and as an unashamedly melodic power-popster on 2005’s Nashville. Frustrated with his label – Rykodisc – Rouse then took the surprise step of setting up his own recording imprint, Bedroom Classics, supposedly to cut himself free from any remaining creative constrictions. This move ostensibly offered us a chance to finally unearth the “real Josh Rouse”; the man behind the marketing, the real singer beneath the songs and the architect back to his basic tools. Positive progression under this new business model seemed wholly tangible in late 2005, on Rouse’s first post-Ryko release, the terrific 5-track Bedroom Classics Vol. 2 EP. It was a bravely experimental affair that merged Rouse’s oft-neglected introspective songbook with delicate instrumentals not unlike the latter-day works of Yo La Tengo, Brokeback, or American Analog Set. However, what a disappointment it is, then, to find that the first full-length fruit of Rouse’s autonomous labour – Subtítulo – is so deprived of any similar adventure or imagination.

Dodging the decision to either peel back Rouse’s layers or to further raise his crossover appeal, Subtítulo is a frustratingly fudged affair. Packing both studio polish and meandering melodies makes for a largely safe yet inconvenient marriage. Proceedings kick off promisingly though, with the gentle electro-acoustic shimmy of “Quiet Town,” a slightly cheesy but convincing homage to his recent domestic relocation to Spain’s Mediterranean coast. The second track, “Summertime,” soon sees a creative dip, however, sounding like a contrived flashback to the blue-eyed soul of 1972. “It Looks Like Love” is simply an irksome stab for incorporation on a soundtrack for a US teen flick, complete with cringe-worthy lyrical couplets: “There goes that melancholy feelin’ again / It looks like love is gonna find a way.” The pointless and wordless “La Costa Blanca” merely sounds like a leftover backing-track in search of a lyric sheet.

The likeable low-key “Jersey Clowns” does restore some diminishing faith, though, recalling the suburban angst and ennui that made Dressed up Like Nebraska such a subtle treasure. Rouse flunks things again though with “His Majesty Rides,” another 1972-like retread that also commits the cardinal rock cliché of (self-)mocking the touring musician lifestyle. Another hint of resuscitation sweeps in with irrepressibly uplifting 70s soul-pop swing of “Givin’ it Up.” Sadly, the subsequent “Wonderful” and “The Man Who…” merely offer up some syrupy coffee-table balladry. With the closing “El Otro Lado,” Rouse makes some belated amends with a little more acoustic gentility, but it’s too late to shake that unfulfilled feeling after a slim-picked 33 minutes.

We should not, however, write Josh Rouse off merely on the evidence of the substandard – but ultimately not disastrous – Subtítulo. If he bounced back from ignobility of Home and Under Cold Blue Stars to deliver us the much-loved 1972 and Nashville, then he has the capacity to do so again, as long as he has the guts to give up the disingenuous gloss and in favour of some honest grit.