Josh Rouse fiddles with his MiniDisc player outside of
Alex the Great, where he finished up work on Nashville.
photo: Brad Jones
There's always something cooking over at Alex the Great, the recording digs of producers Robin Eaton and Brad Jones. It's a cool, vibey compound that features a comfortable control room with a clean, slightly Asian feel to the light woodwork — it was built by MC5 rocker (and master woodworker) Wayne Kramer. Through the years, the duo has worked on a number of fine local and national pop and rock projects, including those for Butterfly Boucher and singer/songwriter Jill Sobule. Eaton worked on the Shrek 2 soundtrack and Jones has produced The Shazam, Swan Dive and Richard Julian. Jones' lyrical bass playing has ended up on numerous high-profile releases by artists such as Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow and Steve Earle.
I first met Jones in the early '90s, and I can say that he is one of the most self-directed and disciplined guys I know in music — or heck, just about anywhere.
Among other regular clients, Jones has enjoyed an ongoing production relationship with artist/songwriter Josh Rouse. His last album, 1972 (Rykodisc), was one of the low-key gems I kept returning to last year. When I found out that Rouse had returned to Alex the Great to work with Jones on his fifth album, I had to look them up.
The new album, Nashville, is another fine showcase for Rouse's intelligently thoughtful pop. It's a good release, driving with the top-down kind of stuff and, like 1972, it features the excellent rhythm section of drummer Marc Pisapia and bassist James “Hags” Haggarty.
When I ask Jones about making Nashville, he says, “Josh brought in his same great band again and we tried to make it about live takes, some of which were done upstairs at his house in the little satellite studio that we'd set up for 1972. It turned out to be a great way to work with Josh. About two-thirds of the album was recorded at studio proper [Alex the Great], but Josh still had his little satellite LE system for when he got a wild hair at 3 a.m. A good look into the homey sound he has up there is the song ‘That's Just Life,’ where you can really feel the size of the cozy little attic room, the chairs creaking and all.”
Rouse says that Nashville started with singer/songwriter Daniel Tashian and Rouse recording “Life” and “Carolina” on Jones' Digidesign Mbox in his house. “I think a month later, in between tours, the band and I set up to record live at Alex the Great, where we recorded ‘My Love Has Gone,’ ‘It's the Nighttime’ and ‘Saturday’ in one session,” Rouse says. “We got everything but vocals and a few atmospheric keyboards, which I did at my house with a couple of Neves [modules] and a Digi 001. So after recording these five songs, I took them home and listened to them from time to time, maybe doing a vocal here and there, or messing around with some of the Reason synths, which I used on ‘Carolina’ and ‘My Love Has Gone.’
Bassist Haggarty points out that part of the album's organic charm comes from the fact that they did not use a click track. “It feels real natural, like a band that has been playing together quite a while, which adds a strength to the record. We had been playing with a lot of the songs during soundchecks around the 1972 tour.”
According to Rouse, Jones likes to work quickly and instinctively. “Brad likes to work fast, so you end up getting something a little more raw that way,” he says. “I think we probably did between 10 and 20 takes on each song. The whole time, Brad is giving arrangement instructions on the spot and we're changing parts and basically re-adjusting a bit on the first five to 10 takes. Usually by then, we can get it in one or two takes when everyone knows what the part is. My band is great at just ‘getting’ the song because they are all songwriters themselves. We did another day a few months later and I think we did two more songs. All in all, we spent seven or eight days actually recording and five or six mixing; a pretty fast process for a modern record.”
The sound on Nashville is a little wetter and more ambient than much of Rouse's previous work. “Over at Alex the Great, we let our sound get more expansive this time, even at the risk of losing our ‘reverb license’ a few times,” Jones says with a laugh. “We used all plug-in reverbs, but filtered down to sound more classic, more mid-fi. ‘Why Wont'cha Tell Me What,’ on the other hand, is just the sound of the main room at Alex with sloppy, not very close-miking. The only close-miked thing on the track was Josh's voice, which we then of course had to soak with slap.
“Josh was singing better than ever,” Jones adds. “We tried to really feature his voice, not just in the mixes but in the arrangements, where in many places the band backs off and lets Josh have the stage for a minute. Those are some of my favorite moments on the record.” Jones points out that the end of “Streetlights” is a particular highlight for him, stating, “After all that big echo-y orchestral build, it goes back down to just Josh alone again, dry and close.”
Rouse says that Jones' intuitive process was also employed to create Nashville's string parts, which were done by Chris Carmichael. “Brad usually comes up with the parts on the spot, with no charts, just humming the arrangements, and then Chris does the strings, overdubbing them one by one,” says Rouse.
The great Al Perkins was also on hand to play pedal steel on a few songs. Rouse says, “We actually had to encourage him to play with a ‘country’ feel. I think he heard the songs and thought we wanted a more delay/wash-type sound, but we actually were looking for licks.”
Regardless, Nashville certainly isn't “country” or even rootsy or Americana, as some have categorized Rouse's music. I would call it pop music for adults.
Even though Rouse has just moved from Nashville to Spain, Haggerty says, “This record was a tribute and a thank you to the town and his friends and his experiences here. To me, this record is like a fall record — good with coffee in a comfortable chair on a crisp day. Although some might say, as someone did on Josh's forum recently, that it is a top-down summer record.”
Either way, it is one fine record and one more testament to the range and quality of artistry coming out of Music City.
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