“Songwriting for me is something I have to do to stay on the sunny side of life. It’s my therapy. I pick up a guitar from time to time and it spills out. I feel lucky in that, after years of being blessed by their presence, the song spirits are still moving through me”
It may have been 15+ years – from roots in rural Nebraska, through time in ‘Music City’ Nashville, TN, and to the current day relocated to a new home in cosmopolitan Spain – but it seems that the song spirits have been constant companions for Josh Rouse. And maybe no more so than on the singer-songwriter’s latest record, The Happiness Waltz, an album that marries both his past, and present – revisiting an earlier era, where his music was heavily influenced by the ‘soft rock’ of the 70’s, and combining it with lyrical tales drawn from the here and now – his modern day-to-day life, one deeply enriched by his children and family.
Rouse has been lauded for his special talents – creating little slices of heaven with words and music that have captured the hearts and minds of both critics, and fans, the globe over, whether it is the New York Times talking about his “pop-folk introspection”, Filter lauding the “wide-eyed ‘thank you, ma’am’ songs that could have grated in their earnest angle if they weren’t so damn wonderfully executed” or Uncut raving about the music as “warm, molten gold, a long bath in the serenity of well-gauged bittersweet balladry” and proclaiming him “a talent to outrank Ryan Adams or Conor Oberst.” Over a storied career, from the engaging debut Dressed Like Nebraska, through his ‘golden era’ with 1972 and Nashville, and right down to the 2011 latin-bossa nova-tinged release …and the Long Vacations, Rouse has created a series of unique, and distinctive records, filled with sparkling melodies and enchanting lyrics.
And there is no disputing that The Happiness Waltz again proves that he stands apart from the crowd, producing yet another set of delicate, intelligent, nuanced pop songs, all destined to become fast favorites. An album of twelve radiant new tunes, from the upbeat “This Movie’s Way Too Long” to the jangle-fest that is “Simple Pleasures”, a cohesive whole that should please fans both old and new.
After a number of years influenced by his changing world – new surroundings and a myriad of fresh influences, moving to Spain and starting a family – which were wonderfully reflected in albums such as Subtitulo and El Turitsa, in 2012 Rouse has naturally gravitated to what he does best, creating old-time warm AM radio-friendly songs that will stick in your brain and not let go. Breezy, summer-y… call it what you will – it’s an elegance that has been favorably compared to the Laurel Canyon/Southern California scene of the early 1970’s. But at the same time, far from being retro, it is anchored in the most important part of the songwriter’s modern life – family.
“Having children is the most meaningful and beautiful thing I’ve done. However, it’s left almost no time for my wife and I to communicate, or do anything else for that matter. Without that time to lock myself in a room and create I can get quite melancholy. All these things put a relationship to the test but we’re growing and learning everyday. I’m writing about it. Life… swinging from joy to pain, that’s what this record is all about.”
There is no song where this is more evident than Our Love with its lyrics detailing the hum of life – getting older, “the sun hides the grey in our hair”, the minutae of daily modern living with work (“Calling on Skype while I’m out on tour”) and commitments and money and family – but all bound together by love.
“It’s Good to Have You” echoes that sentiment, detailing a morning getting up & starting the day, a day which is made all the more worthwhile by having someone to share it with. And the lyrics are encased in a musical bed that enhances the feeling – a pulsing keyboard and delicate vibes adding a luminous richness to the song.
On “A Lot Like Magic” Rouse sings, “I met a man and he gave me advice… he said you live each day like your very last one. So I took that down and wrote this song” – a sentiment that we should all take to heart, and one that is further realized with its upbeat horns and buoyant rhythm.
“Julie (Come Out of the Rain)” is a reminder of what made Josh Rouse a pioneer of the alt-country movement with its honest and poignant lyrics, the post-Gram melodies and an atmospheric steel guitar. Meanwhile “The Ocean” takes the pedal steel work of Paul Niehaus in a whole new direction – its aching tones enhancing the themes of longing and emotion embodied in Rouse’s words.
Then there is the title track, the striking “The Happiness Waltz” with its lilting piano melody and subtle harmonica – the most melancholic track on the album, and one of its most distinctive.
In looking to record this new set of songs, to capture the images Rouse had in his head, there was no choice but to once again recruit Brad Jones as producer. Jones, of course, whose resume includes work with everyone from Matthew Sweet, Jill Sobule, Marshall Crenshaw and Ron Sexsmith, to Justin Townes Earle, Yo La Tengo and Chuck Prophet, helmed those two aforementioned acclaimed releases 1972 and Nashville. So in revisiting that era, there seemed no one better to help craft another album in that vein.
“I thought this set of songs would turn out best if Brad was behind the board arranging, adding his touches of harmony and superb piano playing.”
It is a mission in which Brad Jones has been successful, superbly complementing the vivid imagery of Rouse’s lyrics with a perfect musical foundation. There are the vibes on “Start Up a Family”, delicately adding depth and meaning to the words, and horns on “The Western Isles”. Jones helps build the album into a three dimensional roadmap of Rouse’s life and loves, enhancing the moods with multiple layers of extra musical touches. Once again recorded at Rouse’s Rio Bravo studio in Valencia, Spain, uniting his cast of supporting players from ‘The Long Vacations’ – Xema Fuertes and Cayo Bellveser with a few older members like Jim Hoke on the flutes and saxes that give it that 70’s sound.
And so here we are in 2013 – reflecting on a lyrical development & personal growth that has occurred over Josh Rouse’s more than ten albums so far – from his early introspective catalog through his coming out period where the world discovered his talents, and more recently on releases created since starting a new life in Europe – a creative arc that has led to The Happiness Waltz – a perfect distillation of the old and new, and maybe his most perfectly realized record yet.
In an era where singer-songwriters appear to be a dime-a-dozen, he seems to be more than average, yards ahead of just a ‘run-of-the-mill guy-with-a-guitar’. When Rouse sings on “The Happiness Waltz”, “It’s good to have you in my life”, one can only think, when it comes to his music and this album, no truer words have been spoken. Yes indeed, Josh Rouse. Yes indeed.
I can’t wait another moment to see those eyes
Lately all I care about is you and me
And the future that looks so bright
It feels good to have you in my life