Finding its genesis within the blurry, ethereal space that separates his own 1972 (2003) and Nashville (2005), Josh Rouse’s Country Mouse City House is another modestly excellent tower in his ever-spreading Nashville skyline of warmly produced singer-songwriter pop. As he’s been steadily doing since Under Cold Blue Stars was released in ’02, Rouse is creating darkly pretty story-songs that sound like the lovechildren of Carol King and the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, a sound that gently insists its adjective decorum include the following: warm, tasteful, adult-pop (let’s not confuse that with adult contemporary), whispered, crisply produced, and luminous.
A pop craftsman rather than innovator, Rouse’s sound hasn’t evolved so much as it has been honed since he released 1972, but that isn’t so bad, really. With the exception of some semi-punkish noise in the late 1970s, those craggy warhorses the Rolling Stones haven’t progressed much beyond ’72, either, and they still move a few units or so a week. No, an artist like Rouse rewards in subtle nuance instead of thunderous genre leaps: The quiet sepia glow of “Sweetie” is a mellow crossbreed of ’70s pop balladry and ’00s alt-pop, simmering over a bed of acoustic guitar strum and twang; the chugging groove of “Nice to Fit In” and the jazzy, insistent nudge of the lilting “Pilgrim” highlight his ear for melody; and “Italian Dry Ice” — with its brass accents, quietly slinking guitars and slow-jam rhythm section, and Rouse’s plea “Baby, please come home” — sounds as if it were born from the forehead of Al Green during the Livin’ For You era.
Though it may not be a resounding step forward, Country House City Mouse is a continuation of an expanding songbook of gorgeous, reserved pop music, one that deserves to be mined further, at least for a few more albums, before he releases his own Some Girls.