August 10, 2013

Josh Rouse - El Turista

Josh Rouse - El Turista cover art
The position El Turista occupies within Josh Rouse’s overall output is analogous to a Merry Melodies cartoon – a pleasant diversion, definitely not the main feature. That said, there’s no doubt that El Turista is, like everything Rouse produces, skillfully composed and arranged, but the result has to be considered (despite the inexplicably positive reviews) nothing more than a frivolous trifle.

Without question, Josh Rouse is one of adult alternative music’s most distinctive and talented artists, and the music’s accessibility, even to Dave Matthews fans, doesn't diminish his importance – no comprehensive music collection is complete without at least one of his releases from 2002-2006, a strong run of four albums in varying flavors.

Under Cold Blue Stars (2002) is the most straightforward alternative rock effort of the bunch, with Rouse’s trademark blending of classic forms (Sixties pop, R&B) that would be even more fully homogenized in 1972 (2003), a deconstructive trek through Seventies Top 40 styles filtered through his unique prism.

The breadth of Rouse's appeal may have peaked with 2005’s Nashville, with something for pop, rock, alternative and singer-songwriter fans, the plethora of influences more finely emulsified, raising the number of epiphanies per track to new heights, the only weakness being a barbell relationship between the album’s strongest and weaker tracks, with nothing in between.

Subtitulo (2006), released after his divorce and subsequent move to Spain, must have come as a shock to fans given the curiously relaxed tone, but in retrospect not only signaled a new approach to his output, where ‘effortless’ (an illusion produced by pure talent) began to flirt with a lack of effort (or, more accurately, a lack of inspiration), but now represents the high watermark of this laid back style.  Thus, we have Country Mouse City House (2007), in which a few decent tunes, not necessarily crying out for repeat listens, were surrounded by general drek, followed by the bauble that is El Turista.

Yet in looking back from Subtitulo to the early catalog, a mild yet persistent weakness has been an occasional breeziness of approach that only the most gifted can afford, an off-the-cuff stance designed to make us think he doesn't take himself too seriously, but more often makes us wish that he would (1972, despite representing for some the apex of his art, can appear oddly slight, like indie elevator music, when swallowed whole, rather than ingested one track at a time).

And all this brings us to El Turista (2010), courageously named by Rouse not due to his continued residence in Spain, but for the negative connotations of ‘tourist,' in this case risking claims (largely justified) of musical dilettantism.  The record is filled with Spanish, Brazilian, Cuban and island dabbling, with most of the songs falling into two camps. Many seem to feature the same two-note riff from Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father” (itself a Brazilian bossa nova) that Steely Dan purloined for “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” perhaps crossed with other mid-Sixties pop-jazz classics and a bit of Charlie Brown theme music, occasionally presented in a wax-wrapper of strings for no apparent purpose, while others (“Valencia”, “Las Voces”) represent a halfhearted trying on of styles like a lime green suit one has no intention of wearing.

“I Will live on Islands” does its best Paul Simon ‘world music’ imitation, but ends up as trivial as a Ringo Starr single, while “Sweet Elaine” could be a third-rate outtake from prior efforts mildly jazz-ified or Latinized, or both.  Rouse’s run-through of a couple of Cuban singer Bolar di Nieve’s songs, “Mesie Julian,” and “Duerme," though pleasant and competent, are ultimately inconsequential – there’s no reason not to visit the source, rather than endure Nebraska-accented Spanish.

If the aforementioned songs were released on an artist blog, as a free download, I’d have no problem.  Only “Don’t Act Tough,” which has a vague McCoy Tyner modal jazz feel, stirs sufficient interest, but ultimately peters out with its dearth of ideas and the odd, metallic echo in the vocal.

As it stands, El Turista is perfect background music for serving lunch in tropical nursing homes, an alarmingly inconsequential, skillfully executed bore, one of the most disappointing releases from a major artist in the past decade.