CD Reviews for 04/02/05 (Josh Rouse, Jesse Sykes, Milton Mapes) by Dan Ferguson

Josh Rouse
Rykodisc RCD-10679

Call the latest release from Josh Rouse a celebration of sorts, that being a fond recollection of his adopted home of Nashville where the native Nebraskan singer/songwriter relocated in the mid-1990s. Titled Nashville, the album is an inviting collection of well-dressed pop tunes from this artist who was initially categorized as an alt country type thanks to his 1998 debut Dressed Up Like Nebraska. That designation was rather short-lived as with each succeeding release he distanced himself further and further from that designation. Then again, you wouldn’t know it from the ultra-catchy “It’s The Nighttime” which leads off Nashville and is laced with pedal steel befitting of Rouse’s Music City base of operations and that aforementioned alt classification. It’s about the closest thing to country on the disc as Rouse then shifts into the airy sort of pop tunes that have filled his albums of late and pretty much pegs it there for the rest of the way. Like his most recent albums, a variety of emotions are in the air on Nashville. Having recently relocated to Spain, with this album Rouse officially bids farewell to Nashville. He describes the album as “his love letter to the city that made him whole and to the parts of the city that go unrecognized by the general public.” But don’t go looking for Grand Ole Opry or country namedropping in his songs. This is more about feel and experiences from his days there than name-dropping and dancing about architecture. Like all of his five releases, melody is all over the 10 tunes comprising this record, from the bouncy “Winter In the Hamptons” to the blue-eyed soulful strands of “Saturday” and the straight-up piano balladry of “Sad Eyes” to the swinging sounds of “Why Won’t You Tell Me What” with its “what’s going on” chorus and all. They’re the kind of tunes that stick in your craw long after playing. Whereas music mag cover boy of late Conor Oberst, a.k.a. Bright Eyes, has been all the rave in the pop world what with two new releases in January, to these ears he’s only working a formula and territory that Rouse has already perfected. In other words, if you’ve yet to catch on, Josh Rouse’s Nashville is worth a definite look. (Rykodisc USA, 30 Irving Plaza, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 1000302303, or or

Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter
Oh, My Girl
Barsuk BARK36

The breathy alto voice of singer/songwriter Jesse Sykes is an instrument to behold. Add in the wistful guitar strokes of her co-hort, not to mention husband, Phil Wandscher, and it makes for a subtle, but tempting tonic. That’s exactly what you get on Sykes’ striking sophomore release called Oh, My Girl. Released late last summer, it follows 2002’s well-received, self-released album Reckless Burning. A native of New York State who since the mid-to-late 1990s has called Seattle home, Sykes has Ocean State ties having attended Rhode Island School of Design where she received her undergraduate degree in photography. Think of her songs as photographs, fuzzy ones at that requiring the mind to dig deep into her muse. Some may remember Wandscher as the original guitarist for Whiskeytown wielding the lead ax for the band it was being dubbed the next big discovery. Whereas Wandscher was a vital cog in the overall sound of the band when it landed its major label deal in the late 1990s, he had had it with temperamental front man Ryan Adams and left. Personally speaking, Whiskeytown was never the same again. Wandscher resurfaced in Seattle where he met Sykes at a bar in 1998. They began a partnership not long after began performing as a duo. The band would eventually be rounded out with the addition of violinist Anne Marie Ruljancich followed by upright bass player Bill Herzog and eventually drummer Kevin Warner. The Hereafter was born with Sykes at the helm contributing songs and handling the vocals. The 2002 debut Reckless Burning combined Sykes’ dusky, evocative voice and Wandscher’s subtle strokes on the six-string with the end result a dark, gothic folk country affair. Most striking about the album was the spaciousness of it all, Wandscher playing one tantalizing note after another way out on one side of things and Sykes’ voice swaying in and out of the proceedings. Oh, My Girl is a similarly bewitching brew on which Sykes cuts a wide swath with her entrancingly wispy voice with Wandscher again roaming near and far on the six string moving from the Mexicano strokes of “The Dreaming Dead” which just may be some of the coolest guitar work this writer has heard in some time to the slow burn subtlety of the leadoff track “Oh, My Girl” to “You Are Not Gotten Here” with its deep tremolo single note intro to the slow core alt country simplicity of “Your Eyes Told”. Simply put, there is obviously chemistry at work here as the twosome, with the very capable support of the rest of the Hereafter band behind them, delivers one mesmerizing song moment after another. While a little behind the curve in getting to this album (and especially considering I dug the heck out of Reckless Burning), think of the highly recommended Oh, My Girl as an honorary member of the Compact Capsules Best of 2004. (Barsuk Records, P.O. 22546, Seattle, WA 98122, or or

Milton Mapes
The Blacklight Trap
Undertow UTCD027

Whereas Jesse Sykes & The Hereafter go for spaciousness, the Austin, Texas-based band Milton Mapes on its third full-length release called The Blacklight Trap opts to fill up its wipe open soundscapes with a dense blend of shimmering guitars freely employing both electric and strummed acoustic, full-bodied percussion chock full of crashing cymbals, bass, and assorted other instruments while more often than not working the technique of crescendo to the hilt. First off, we start off by letting you know Milton Mapes is a band, not a person. Named for front man Greg Vanderpool’s grandfather, the band was born in Dallas where Vanderpool and drummer Roberto Sanchez grew up. A brief jaunt to Nashville followed in the late 1990s before the band landed back in Texas settling in Austin. The five-piece made waves on its local Austin front in Fall of 2003 with the release of its second longplayer called Westernaire (Aspyr Music). A Neil Young meets Gram Parsons sort of affair, Westernaire could best be described as a cosmic American collision of rock and roll and roots music. (The Young connection also comes in part due to Vanderpool’s singing voice which is not far removed that of Mr. Young’s.) The songwriting and wide open, desolate sounds of Westernaire drew inspiration from the physical surroundings Vanderpool encountered during his undergraduate days in West Texas (Lubbock). The album caught the ear of St. Louis-based indie Undertow Music who signed the band last year with the newly released album The Blacklight Trap its debut for the label. A nine-song affair, The Blacklight Trap picks up where Westernaire left off, however, opts for more of an atmospheric sonic punch than its predecessor. The building to crescendo remains a vital part of the equation as does an at times eerie similarity to some of Young’s most obsessive sides – a number like “Tornado Weather” would fit just fine on Young’s dark and ragged opus On The Beach. Whereas the soundscape clearly conjures up aural images of that Young classic, the characters inhabiting the songs of The Blacklight Trip are a more hopeful lot in the end. Then again, with Milton Mapes, there’s a tendency to get so caught up in the music that the lyrics don’t begin to be digested until after multiple spins. In other words, there’s plenty to savor on The Blacklight Trip. (Undertow Music, P.O. Box 771247, St. Louis, MO 63177, or…