Rock Roundup

The Ultimate Singer Songwriter?

Josh Rouse continues to endure. He plays Turner Hall Sunday.

By - Jun 2nd, 2015 03:36 pm
Josh Rouse. Photo from Facebook.

Josh Rouse. Photo from Facebook.

Top Show: Josh Rouse at Turner Hall Ballroom, Sunday, June 7

French writer Henry de Montherlant usually gets credit for the aphorism to the effect that happiness writes white on the page. That is a Gallic way of phrasing the old journalistic maxim “If it bleeds, it leads,” or just another set of words arranged to suggest that describing ordinary life does not lead to extraordinary art.

Had Josh Rouse read and believed Montherlant when he was a younger man, he would have never gotten past his first album, 1998’s Dressed Up Like Nebraska, much less moved to Nashville and then onward to Spain, where he now resides with his wife and two children.

Domesticity, expatriated or not, does not necessarily have to write white on the page or in the grooves. Rouse tries to, and often succeeds in, building flecks of deeply reflective and refractive color into his songs.

Some of the flecks come from his travels: 2006’s Subtítulo and 2010’s El Turista bask broadly in Spanish sunshine, and the twang that at times must seem to be poured into the water of Music Row bubbles up across his entire catalog.

Other flecks come from the life of a husband and a father and its thousand dramatic moments, a generous handful of which Rouse has laid down, like Paul Simon granted Midwestern humility or Ray Davies allowed American cheer, on 2013’s The Happiness Waltz and 2015’s The Embers of Time.

From Nebraska (and Nebraska) to now, Rouse has conveyed all this in a singing voice that seeks and bestows comfort in roughly equal measures. The voice knows that happiness almost never writes fully white, on the page or elsewhere, and that the most contented life is laden with dissatisfaction.


Wednesday, June 3: Glass Animals at Riverside Theater

As a comparison, “Radiohead with a libido”—a phrase that flashed across my thoughts while I listened to Glass Animals—is both reductive and inaccurate. As a vibe, it feels nearly right, as if my subconscious was onto something. Maybe UK producer Paul Epworth’s subconscious flashed something similar to his conscious ear.

Or something stronger, because his ear has a knack: Epworth’s credits include Adele’s 21 and Florence + the Machine’s Ceremonials. As for Glass Animals, the Oxfordshire quartet’s first full-length, 2014’s Zaba, blends electronic quirks and organic pop with a sensuality that, nudged just a little further—like lips moving down the neck to the base of the throat—could be even sexier the next time ‘round.


Thursday, June 4: Marc Cohn and Shawn Colvin at Northern Lights Theater, Potawatomi Hotel & Casino

The best recommendation for Shawn Colvin is neither a shelf with three Grammy Awards; nor her 1996 album A Few Small Repairs, which belongs on a second shelf alongside other great post-divorce song collections; nor her folk musician’s ability to wrap some kernel of truth about herself, or humanity, inside pretty melodies.

The best recommendation for Shawn Colvin is her long association with Buddy Miller, one of Americana’s greatest songwriters, guitarists, and producers. She’s known him since 1980 and hired him to record, and to sing and play on, her most recent album, 2012’s All Fall Down, which turns the trick of being polished and raw simultaneously.

Marc Cohn’s performing, too, if you’re into that sort of thing.


Friday, June 5: Tyranny Is Tyranny at Cactus Club

With a moniker derived from the fourth chapter of Howard Zinn’s book A People’s History of the United States, and a second-album title, The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, derived from the title of a book by Naomi Klein, Tyranny Is Tyranny establishes its bona fides as a committed, a.k.a. politicized, Madison band.

Fortunately, while the band pushes its messages out front via nomenclature, its post-rock aggression resides in pummeling noise and — strikingly — in the plaintive notes of a trumpet played by bassist Dan Fitch, instead of agitprop. If songs like “Or Does It Explode?” don’t crush onstage, then power does not reside with the people.


Saturday, June 6: Betty Who at Henry Maier Festival Grounds, PrideFest

Iggy Azalea and Jessica Anne Newham, the latter a.k.a. Betty Who, share a birthplace of Sydney, Australia, and each makes contemporary pop. The listener who can’t tell them apart, however, shows a lack of discernment akin to deafness.

Who is far closer to Robyn, the Swedish dominatrix of alternative pop, than Azalea seems capable of getting, and Who’s debut LP, last year’s Take Me When You Go, sounds the way Katy Perry’s best singles do on first encounter: refreshing and uplifting. The distinction is that Who’s LP keeps sounding that way after continued acquaintance.

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