Rykodisc/Slow River – 2002 – 39 minutes

Since 1998, Josh Rouse has been releasing great albums every two years with the minimum of fuss. His debut, 'Dressed Up Like Nebraska', was so low key that people who heard it felt like they'd found buried treasure. Its follow-up, 2000's 'Home' was a big step forward but was overshadowed by Rouse's work with Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner on the 'Chester' side-project. Now comes 'Under Cold Blue Stars', the Nebraskan's most ambitious album and the one which, while in no way destined to make him a household name, should see him on very good terms with lots of record collections.

A gently tied together concept album, it chronicles the marriage of two people in smalltown USA – a dreamer musician husband and his stoical religious wife – and how their true love becomes real world and visits all the stop-offs in between. While the sense of melancholy and nothing-good-lasts-forever runs through even the happiest songs like 'Nothing Gives Me Pleasure' and 'Miracle' (where the couple go to see their dream home), Rouse never overblows the sentiments or drags the arrangements into despair – these are songs you can hum even when you're empty.

His intimate voice and gift for soulful guitar coaxes you into even the darkest corners of the relationship, like the discovery of adultery in 'Ugly Stories' and the resignation of 'Gray World'. It all comes together beautifully on the title track, where the summer melody yields to the album-defining lyric ("Under Cold Blue Stars you would just stroll around the yard. That's what happens to dreams when the life strains and the child lays in you") and has you wondering when the last time a record lived up to life and pulled you in so many directions at once.

It takes time to love what Rouse has accomplished here, but eventually you'll lie back, look up and realise that this album is every bit as stellar as its title.

Harry Guerin

Tracklisting:Twilight - Nothing Gives Me Pleasure - Miracle - Christmas with Jesus - Under Cold Blue Stars - Ugly Stories - Feeling No Pain - Ears to the Ground - Summer Kitchen Ballad - Women and Men - The Whole Night Through