Under Cold Blue Stars
A concept album outlining the romance and dissipation of a small-town couple in 1950’s America, Under Cold Blue Star is surprisingly effective at maintaining the story arc without ever being too explicit, travelling from first love (“Nothing gives me pleasure like you do/Nothing has the strength to pull me through”) to infidelity and parting (“Next time you’re in town/Don’t bother coming around you’re not welcome anymore”). One of Rouse’s collaborators is future Wilco member Pat Sansone, who adds various instrumental parts, while the use of analogue synthesizers also adds interesting textures.
Rouse’s falsetto is able add life to the soulful, insistent ‘Nothing Gives Me A Pleasure’, and the gentle groove of the title track. The highlight though, is the moody ‘Christmas With Jesus’, mournfully paced and awash in gritty guitars, it boils down the tension in the marriage between the Christian and non-Christian protagonists into four poignant lines (“And I ask of the Lord to spare me His sword of forgiveness/’Cause it’s so very hard to ask for a part in your Christmas with Jesus”). ‘Ugly Stories’ is a story of infidelity which is notable for its depressed, resigned feel that’s devoid of anger. The second half of the album is less immediate, as it’s slower and more pensive, but there’s still the defiant pessimism of ‘Feeling No Pain’ and the relaxed ‘Summer Kitchen Ballad’ to provide focal points.
Squeezing some great songs into a coherent, interesting conceptual structure that’s never overbearing, Under Cold Blue Stars is a subtly rewarding effort.