After so many retro bands who claim to reinvent the wheel but are really just painting whitewalls on worn out tires, it’s refreshing to find Josh Rouse being so upfront about his influences. On “1972” (Ryko), the Nashville singer/songwriter sets out to recreate the sounds of the early ’70s. That he comes up with a reasonable facsimile is a mixed blessing.
“Come Back (Light Therapy),” the opening number of his Knitting Factory appearance, has the era’s sonic signifiers down: the thick, circular bassline, with shimmering electric piano notes dropped in followed by a snaky guitar line. He tops it off with a nicely understated melody, with restless lyrics sung in his sandy, ingenuous voice. He’s plainly going for the folk-soul of Bill Withers, Carole King or Shuggie Otis, but the effect is closer to Gilbert O’Sullivan or Mouth and McNeil.
The problem is that Rouse seems to believe that the word that most defined the music of the early ’70s was “mellow.” Every song, from the bubblegum of “Love Vibration” to the bouncy Elton John pop of “Slaveship,” is given the laid-back treatment. The baby-faced Rouse has a pleasant stage demeanor, but he’s not a strong enough personality to give the material any juice; he often sounds like Jeff Tweedy, but without the Wilco frontman’s tortured intelligence. It doesn’t help that he lacks any ironic distance from the era’s more unfortunate excesses. “Under Your Charms” is as smarmy a seduction as anything written in the ’70s, and Rouse sings it with a curdled sensitivity of the Eagles’ Glenn Frey.
None of this appeared to matter to the young aud who filled the Knitting Factory. To really appreciate Rouse’s 1972, I guess you had to not be there.