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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1592

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Josh Rouse: El Turista
by George Graham

(Yep Roc 2220 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/14/2010)

Communication being what is it, the notion of music being unique to a particular geographical region is increasingly anachronistic. One has a great reggae band coming from New Zealand, a Salsa band from Scotland, and all manner of other stylistic and geographic conglomerations. It's also fun when there is a kind of intentional juxtaposition of the seemingly dissimilar that makes for engaging and sometimes also amusing listening. This week we have one of those unlikely mash-ups, a Nebraska-born roots-rock singer-songwriter doing Brazilian-retro bossa-nova influenced music with some lyrics in Spanish, recording in Nashville. It's the new release by Josh Rouse called, perhaps appropriately, El Turista.

Though Rouse was born in Nebraska, and that figured in his debut CD in 1998, his military family moved a lot as he was growing up. He ended up in Tennessee, going to college in Clarksville, and eventually settling in Nashville. He released his debut album Dressed Like Nebraska in 1998, which got some critical notice. His follow-up CD Home had several songs which would eventually be used in films and TV soundtracks. He has been releasing recordings steadily since.

In 2005, he married Spanish artist Paz Suay, and they settled in Valencia, Spain, on the Mediterranean coast, where the Rouses live with their first child. The celebrated their marriage with an EP Rouse released called She's Spanish, I'm American.

One day, Ms. Suay gave Rouse a recording by the Cuban artist Bola de Nieve, who has been described as a kind of Cuban Louis Armstrong. Rouse was intrigued, and was planning to go to Nashville to record with his long-time producer and collaborator Brad Jones. Rouse intended to record more or less for his own amusement, doing a cover of a Bola de Nieve song Mesie Julian. And the project began to develop from there, still without firm intent on releasing it. With some influence from Brazilian bossa nova circa mid 1960s, plus even some African sounds, Rouse was basically seeing what he could do with the mixture. He soon realized that he had something interesting on his hands, and the result is out, and it's certainly quite a bit different from his previous work.

The whole CD has a kind of dreamy tropical feel to it, with the 1960s Brazilian influence of artists like João Gilberto strongly felt. The overall sound has a distinctly retro quality, with the strings, some vintage instruments and even recording techniques that evoke that era. Rouse himself, is in fine form, and with laid back, easy-going vocals that fit the mood perfectly. A fair portion of the CD is sung in Spanish, with some of the original lyrics to songs he covered. Living in Spain for the past five years, he says he speaks Spanish almost exclusively now, so that came naturally. But there is also original music in English, and a further cultural curiosity, the American Civil War era folk song Cotton Eye Joe, done in the breezy style of the rest of the CD.

In addition to producer and multi-instrumentalist Brad Jones, who together with Rouse play most of the instruments, there are is also a Brazilian percussionist Sam Bacco, and frequent string arrangements, which are apparently all played by one Chris Carmichael on violin, viola and cello by means of multiple overdubbing.

The CD starts with an instrumental piece Rouse and Jones came up with after they recorded the Cuban cover tune. He calls it Benvenido, or "welcome," and provides a nice introduction to the way one is transported musically into the kind of tropical retro sound of El Turista. <<>>

That leads into a traditional song called Duerme, which is a highlight. Rouse's vocal has a lot of charm, while the musical backing also evokes a past era. <<>>

Lemon Tree, is an original song in English, that also evokes the tropical groove of the CD. The song is apparently autobiographical, since in interviews Rouse, the Nebraska native, goes on about how much he loves living on the sea in Valencia. <<>>

With a decidedly more Brazilian sound is Sweet Elaine, with its samba beat, and some lush-sounding string arrangements also evoking bossa nova era. <<>>

The song that started the project is Mesie Julian, originally by Bola de Nieve. Rouse and colleagues give the Cuban song a Brazilian bossa nova treatment. <<>>

The track called I Will Live on Islands is an original that was influenced by the same African rumba rock 1950s compilation that inspired Paul Simon on his Graceland album. Rouse can sometimes sound a little like Paul Simon as well. <<>>

Rouse pays tribute to his current Spanish home town in the song Valencia he wrote with his wife Paz Suay. But like most of the rest of the CD, the beat is Brazilian rather than Spanish. <<>>

Probably the most surprising track on the album is the old folk song Cotton Eye Joe, which is given a dreamy waltz treatment. It's completely transformed, but it's quite enjoyable. <<>>

Josh Rouse's new CD El Turista is an interesting departure for the Midwest-born, singer-songwriter who established himself in Nashville. It's also an interesting fusion of influences in and of itself with the 1960s Brazilian-style settings to some songs that have Cuban and Latin American origins, along with Rouse's own enthusiasm for his home in Spain. This CD may have been recorded primarily in Nashville, but it bears almost no resemblance to music associated with that city.

Our grade for audio quality is close to an "A." While in terms of pure sonic clarity, the CD is not really stellar, the retro sound is wonderfully authentic, and thankfully minus some of the bad audio characteristic of the 1960s. And the dynamic range is not too bad -- the CD is not trying to win a loudness war.

While it's amusing to think of the cross-cultural mixture that this CD represents -- a Nebraska-native roots rocker, now living in Spain, doing music in a 1960s bossa nova influenced style, partially in Spanish, while recording in the home of country music -- the overall result is a very enjoyable CD that is the musical equivalent of soft ocean breezes.

(c) Copyright 2010 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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