20 Signs of Life in 2002
Number 14 - Josh Rouse - Under Cold Blue Stars
Like Wilco, Josh Rouse has intentionally shed the misguided alt-country tag without sacrificing indie credibility. And, like Wilco, every album Rouse has released in his still young career seems to have outgrown its predecessor in terms of atmospheric flourish and sonic depth. The stark structures of his agrarian debut, Dressed Up Like Nebraska, were thickened by the polished urbane pop of Home. As a logical segue, Rouse’s expanding repertoire has found an appropriate canvas with Under Cold Blue Stars, a record that uses a textured backdrop of strings, synths and loops to embrace his subtle melodies and Sudafed croon.
The percussive textures and autumnal tones of the Roger Moutenot-produced Stars are a bit reminiscent of David Gray’s White Ladder. The two singers share an economy-of-words affinity by stressing–or stretching–a lyric to maximize emotional impact. As a result, the songs on Stars are felt, not heard.
Lyrically, Stars is a thinly veiled concept album documenting the physical and spiritual journey of a young Midwestern couple in the 1950s. Eleven tracks provide vignettes of the family’s ups and downs, including struggles with religious differences ("Christmas with Jesus") and attempts toward indefinite reconciliation ("Women and Men"). Stars’ mood shifts like the cycle of the day, with the dawn shimmer of "Nothing Gives Me Pleasure" and "Miracle" soon fading into the twilight of the title track’s blue-eyed soul. Rouse’s penchant for darker hues ("Summer Kitchen Ballad") coasts the listener past the shadows and into the night, and the plaintive lullaby, "The Whole Night Through," turns out the light with a glimpse of tomorrow’s first glow.
Considering that many successful artists often release a few albums before "finding" their audience, Under Cold Blue Stars gives the impression Rouse is just a hook away from mimicking his aforementioned contemporaries’ escape from relative obscurity.