Earlier this year, Rufus Wainwright released a collection of mournful chamber pieces featuring just his piano and vocals. And now we have masterful pop songwriter Josh Rouse, born and raised in the Midwest, putting out a new album sung half in Spanish.
I mention these two albums together because both artists have proved themselves eminently capable of smart, crowd-friendly pop music but neither appears all that interested in selling CDs. They’d rather stretch their musical muscles into new and unexpected directions — an opera here, a bossa nova there — and trust their loyal fans to follow.
Well, this loyal fan has followed.
El Turista, Rouse’s new album, is a lush and sweetly earnest collection that doesn’t compare to his best work but manages to paint a neat picture of his experiences as an American abroad.
Early press releases cited Graceland in promoting Rouse’s genre- and culture-blending new effort. That comparison is off-base. Paul Simon blended African rhythms and instrumentation into a group of songs that stood among his very finest compositions. He was reaching for the stars. Rouse, on El Turista, is nowhere near that ambitious.
Rather, this album feels more like a guy jamming with a group of friends on a street corner in Madrid, trying their hands at simple folky tunes and traditional ballads. Stylistically he is pushing boundaries but his songwriting here is extremely modest. I don’t mean that as a criticism because I’m sure it’s exactly what he’s going for. This is an album to play in the background of a sunset cocktail party where everybody has cleaned up after a day of laying out on the beach.
Four of El Turista‘s ten tracks are performed in Spanish, in Rouse’s charmingly authentic accent. It’s a bit distracting at first to hear the Nebraska boy lisping his S’s as if he were born and raised in Madrid. But I count those tracks among the best on the album. ‘Valencia,’ named for the city he now calls home with his wife and new baby, is the exuberant first single. ‘Mesie Julian’ is a jaunty little number driven by a thick bass line, island keyboards and buoyant backing vocals.
My favorite track, though, is the English-language ‘I Will Live On Islands,’ which reminds me very much of Paul Simon — ‘Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard’ by way of Graceland, perhaps. His voice even seems to channel Simon on this song. It’s no more complex than anything else on El Turista but it’s the moment that shines through as a rival to Rouse’s best work on Nashville, 1972 or Subtitulo.
I hope Rouse continues to expand his musical diversity (though I selfishly would like his next album in English only). Artists like him do more than entertain… they open our eyes, and ears, to new horizons. His story has been a remarkable one — a case study in how simultaneously small and expansive the world can be — and tracing it through his albums has made it our journey as well.
I Will Live On Islands: