Lighthearted, literate tunes from the heartland

Sun Pop Music Critic

1972. Terrorists took hostages at the Munich Olympics. The Watergate scandal broke and the Vietnam War was coming to a close. In pop, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Carole King and Stevie Wonder all dropped masterpieces - Superfly, What's Going On, Tapestry and Talking Book respectively - that inspired artists to unblinkingly explore themselves and their communities in song.

Singer-songwriter Josh Rouse was born that year. On his latest and fifth album, 1972, he goes back to that era of sunny melodies, spirited live instrumentation and vivid, memorable lyrics. For the artist who's known for heavy, literate tales, the new album is a bit of a departure, glowing with lighthearted tunes that bounce into your head. 1972, which completely ignores the narrow, bombastic, hip-hop-laced conventions of today's pop, is easily one of the best albums out this year.

"I've always wanted to do an early-'70s kind of singer-songwriter album," says the Nebraska native, who's calling from his home in Nashville. "I sat down with Brad Jones, my producer, and played him some things. And he was like, 'Wow, you wanna do a soul record."

Which isn't a surprise. For the past year or so, Rouse has immersed himself in vintage R&B: Gaye, Mayfield and Al Green. Between writing and playing gigs, he also listened to David Bowie's Hunky Dory and King's Tapestry, studying every note and nuance.

"I tried to keep the tracks consistent," Rouse says. "Thematically, the songs just sort of went together. I got lucky. We wanted it to be retro but we did it on computer - the mixing and recording, that whole analog sound. We wanted it to sound retro but not too dated. We wanted some humor, too."

The mission was accomplished. Sonically, 1972 is rich, flavored with candy strings, swinging horns, Stax-influenced backbeats and funky percussion. Flutes also flutter through the mix. And nothing seems out of place. Rouse's trademark dusky melancholia coats "Under Your Charms," the artist's "first song that alludes to sex" and "Flight Attendant," which centers on a repressed gay boy who grows up to become a bitter airline attendant, only to take his pain out on his passengers. But the humor shines through the first single, "Love Vibration," which came to Rouse one evening as he watched re-runs of Welcome Back Kotter.

The singer-songwriter, who has amassed a cult-like fan base around the world but typically misses Billboard's Hot 100, appeared on the scene in 1998 with the folksy ode to home, Dressed Up Like Nebraska. The next year, he dropped Chester, a five-song collaboration with Kurt Wagner. Home came out in 2000. And though a bit unfocused, it introduced more vibrant elements - horns, vibes and strings - to Rouse's often hazy, acoustic guitar-based arrangements. Last year's Under Cold Blue Stars is the singer's darkest work - a loose concept album that centers on the trials of a fictional 1950s couple.

Growing up, Rouse was heavily into punk; he loved the Smiths.

"I started out in a punk band 'cause that was all I could play," Rouse says. "Then later there was U2, REM, groups like that."

Rouse's father, a construction worker, often moved the family around, wherever the work was plentiful. But the singer spent the bulk of his formative years in the rolling farmlands of Nebraska.

As the artist's love for music deepened, his tastes expanded, and a career in music seemed inevitable. After some lean years as a performer, Rouse and his wife eventually settled in Nashville, where the artist does much of his recording.

On 1972, Rouse showcases his growth and eclectic influences with more refinement, more brightness and generous amounts of soul and humor.

He says, "People think I'm depressed or something because the songs are sometimes melancholy. I don't know where that comes from. I'm not depressed. It just comes out that way, I guess. I'm just kinda doing what I do now. I have a long road ahead."

And it will surely lead us to more groovy sounds.

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