Music News & Reviews

Critic's pick: Josh Rouse, 'El Turista'

The transformation of Josh Rouse from a Midwest-bred indie-pop stylist working out of Nashville to a songwriter living on the shores of Valencia, Spain, incorporating Spanish, American and, increasingly, other international accents as colors for his music remains, at the least, curious.

But understanding such continental shifts certainly makes the journey to his new album, El Turista — and the light, exotic and undeniably summery mood that pervades it — a smooth flight.

On paper, the pieces of El Turista don't seem to fit. Bossa nova tunes that echo with the sunny, whispery grace of masters like João Gilberto sung in Spanish instead of Portuguese? Cuban and Afro-Cuban works revised with the same Valencian grace?

And what of Rouse's own songwriting? Can a Midwestern soul thrive within such exotica?

The bottom line with El Turista is that the obvious questions don't matter. When Rouse sings on Lemon Tree (in English, this time) of sleeping in dandelion fields and strolling alongside oceans over a light Cuban groove ushered in on piano but enhanced with flutes, strings and percussion, the attitude is set.

"It's a long walk home, but I have found my beat," Rouse sings. Indeed he has. For the duration of the song's 31/2 minutes (Lemon Tree could have run twice that without growing stagnant), the subtle beat rules.

The feel is similarly chic on the Spanish-language Mesie Julian. The song comes from the '60s repertoire of famed Cuban singer-pianist Bola de Nieve, but on El Turista it emits sunny bossa nova cool from the Gilberto school along with a faintly retro American halo, mostly through use of Rhodes-style keyboards and Hammond organ by longtime Rouse ally Brad Jones. I'm not sure why Rouse and Jones give themselves songwriting credits along with the tune's original composer, Cuban pianist Armando Orefiche. Unless one is versed enough in Spanish to detect modifications in the lyrics, we'll never know.

The big modification, though, comes late on El Turista, when Rouse sings in English over a jazzy, breezy strain of guitar and percussion. The words reflect subtle wonder ("Where do you come from, where do you go, what you been doin'?") until the song reveals itself as the folk/country staple Cotton Eyed Joe. But ol' Joe has hung up his clogging shoes on this one. He's now a beachcomber on the sunny shores of Spain, in keeping with the rest of El Turista's keenly relaxed feel.

Don't concern yourself too much with the questions surrounding Rouse's globe-trotting musical matrix. Summer is at hand, and a cool evening listen to El Turista will help make grilling burgers in the back yard seem as luxuriant as a night on the Mediterranean coast.