Anyone who has heard Josh Rouse's work would hardly be surprised to learn that his third album, Under Cold Blue Stars, is dominated by musical snapshots which focus on the darker shadows of human relationships; after all, that's what the man does best. But this time out, Rouse sounds a bit less obsessive about the less cheerful side of life, occasionally finding glimpses of happiness along the way, and Under Cold Blue Stars is certainly his most musically inviting work to date. With producer Roger Moutenot at the controls, Rouse has found a sound that's a good bit warmer and more richly textured than the beautiful but stark surfaces of Dressed Up Like Nebraska, and the songs certainly warm to this more full-bodied approach. "Nothing Gives Me Pleasure" is perhaps the least ambiguous love song Rouse has written to date, and the gentle but yearning arrangement gives the tune just the right amount of lift, while the R&B accent of the title cut is hardly what you'd expect from Rouse, but he brings it off beautifully. Under Cold Blue Stars is a loosely structured song cycle about the lives of a Midwestern couple in the 1950s (based in part on his parents), and while the songs don't quite cohere into a unified narrative (that doesn't appear to have been the intention), together they do add up to more than the sum of their parts, with the journeys and arrivals, joys and sorrows, happy holidays and bittersweet reconciliations transforming themselves into the building blocks of life as most of us live it. Under Cold Blue Ground blazes some new trails for John Rouse, but the quality of his songwriting and the emotional impact of his music hasn't changed a bit; it's a solid and satisfying set from a genuinely gifted artist.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming