Josh Rouse: Under Cold Blue Stars

Josh Rouse
Under Cold Blue Stars
Slow River/Rykodisc

A segment on NPR produces airwave alchemy, instantaneously transforming any musician into a golden goose for a record label. Witness late singer Eva Cassidy's posthumous ascension on the charts: Music stores and distribution outlets alike were sent scrambling to meet demand after a segment broadcast about the singer's life and career. A recent interview with Morning Edition's Bob Edwards netted Josh Rouse and his new album Under Cold Blue Stars a small taste of this success--namely, the top spot sales-wise at Amazon.com for the two days after the February broadcast.

It's a good thing NPR caught him before his death (still a long way off at this point, we hope), because the 29-year-old Rouse deserves all the praise he can get. While previous efforts, Dressed Up Like Nebraska and Home, received critical acclaim, neither were as ambitious or finely wrought as Stars, which details the struggles of a married couple after buying a farm in the 1950s South. The Nebraska-born Rouse sketches portraits of the pair in sparse song lyrics rife with indelible detail and guilelessness. (Just listen to "Summer Kitchen Ballad": "Later at the fire/With a marshmallow stick/You were embarrassed/'Cause she was so thin.").

Harnessing a voice that can radiate youthful vulnerability in the same breath as simmering regret, Rouse encases his vocals with a uniquely understated sonic backdrop. Subtle synthesizer samples intertwine with quiet guitars and simple drum arrangements, which eerily suit the couple's inner dialogue. From the post-spiritual lament "Christmas With Jesus" to the haunting gossip-ballad "Ugly Stories,"Stars channels a distinctly Southern Gothic sensibility. And the record's length, at a scant 40 minutes, emulates the fiction the album itself aspires to be: a story that's over far too soon.

 
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