Posts Tagged “Mikel Rouse”

Boost/False Doors CD cover

Mikel Rouse

ExitMusic Recordings


  • Hurdle Rate
  • Professional Smile
  • Hardwired Superstition
  • Dumb Young
  • Side Pockets
  • Orson Elvis
  • Redemption Fee
  • The Movie We’re In

False Doors

  • Words are Missing
  • Prosperity Gospel
  • Sky Sprites
  • Thumb Skills
  • Make Her Won
  • Blow Dried Bodies
  • The Next World
  • The Albany Handshake
  • God Said No
  • Homegoings
  • Face Around
  • Come From Money

Mikel Rouse has done it again. Today the two album set Boost/False Doors is released and once again both albums deliver powerful and unique listening experiences which couldn’t be created by anyone else. Last time Rouse released two albums simultaneously, Recess and Corner Loading Vol. 1, those albums were treated as separate entities and for good reason. While both discs capture quintessential aspects of Rouse’s musical vocabulary, each album obsessed on totally unrelated issues. It was as if there were two Mikel Rouses for a while, each doing their own thing.  Boost and False Doors, being packaged together, show how these two halves are gradually being brought back together. Each disc is a world in and of itself but these two different halves are binding with each other. The glue is Rouse’s omnipresent steel guitar.

Boost is the manic dance-party side of Rouse’s nature. Tight beats and crisp percussive sounds provide the foundation for his vocal layers of “counterpoetry.” Melodically, tracks shift between catchy sung tunes and spoken word. In many ways, the musical language is similar to Dennis Cleveland but updated to more contemporary dance music aesthetics and production values. There is an oblique narrative through-line as one might expect from a song cycle but what mainly catches my ear is the frenetic beat energy. The opening thoughts in “Hurdle Rate” draw you in quickly and I’m also partial to “Side Pockets” as a great stand-alone track.

No matter how the melodies float by, no matter how the harmonies freely drift, Rouse’s beat creation skills are the star of the show. I’m reluctant to call them “grooves” since Boost is driven and propulsive, never lazy and funky. Even slower-paced moments like the opening of  “Orson Elvis” don’t dally long before beats take over. There is still a lightness to this disc, though, and these beats are clearly more than simple loops. Rouse’s metrical/rhythmical bag of tricks has been compressed into these crisp metallic pulses. He makes the stuff they play in dance clubs sound even more shallow and lifeless than it already does.

Everything that Boost is, False Doors is not. This is not to say that False Doors is in any way inferior. On the contrary, I listen to this album significantly more frequently than Boost. The pacing of this disc is slower and more contemplative which suits my own personal tastes. “Sky Sprites” is especially striking with a singular guitar lick that punctuates his sung melody (this lick returns in a most perfect way in “Come From Money”). In comparison to Boost, events are drawn out and repeated more obsessively. The poetry in the lyrics is more raw and plainspoken. “God Said No,” for instance, sounds a bit like Rouse is channeling a lost Simon and Garfunkel song with his own peculiar lyrical slant. A song like “Thumb Skills” sets you up lyrically but then twists the expectations ever-so slightly for more dramatic weight.

The opening track “Words are Missing” sounds like a direct outgrowth to the phasing techniques featured on Corner Loading. If Corner Loading was Rouse’s most spartan work, False Doors adds in just the right parts of what he had taken away. “Homegoings” is also just a perfect microcosm of everything that makes Rouse’s music what it is.

Should these be two separate releases? I don’t think so. Recess and Corner Loading were two clearly separated bits of work. Boost and False Doors represent these two parts of Rouse’s music coming back together. Boost is young people’s music: quirky dance beats (my daughter prefers Boost) yet Rouse’s steel guitar gives a slightly folky/country tinge to it all. False Doors is more adult: the music is more about contemplation and nostalgia. Many of the songs sound almost too personal to hear. Again, the guitar provides the soulful through-voice to it all. Any way you hear these two discs, each disc relies on the other to create a complete picture, though, and that picture is completely worth your time.

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Mikel Rouse  

Corner Loading (Volume 1)

ExitMusic Recordings

  1. Active Denial
  2. (Running Out of Time for) Good News
  3. My Tide
  4. Made Up, Oh Lord
  5. Years
  6. Busy Humanist
  7. Be Real Bad
  8. Trouble Making
  9. Lonesome Shoeshine
  10. Great Adventure Jail
  11. Hide in There
  12. It’s Hard to be Nobody
  13. Ad Man

The second half of ExitMusic’s 10th anniversary celebration, Corner Loading (Volume 1), will be released on December 7 alongside the album Recess (my review of Recess can be read here).  Where Recess lives and breathes with Rouse’s density and complexity, Corner Loading is a lean, mean, stripped-down exploration of his musical core.  The musical language, on the surface, sounds like a fairly straight-ahead country/blues singer/songwriter but as soon as you listen past that surface you are rewarded with an intimate portrayal of what makes Rouse’s music really tick.

Each song features Rouse as a solo performer, usually voice and guitar, so at first listening Corner Loading sounds like something you can comfortably put on in your local coffee shop.  The only problem with that scenario is that this isn’t passive music.  Rouse’s language has a way of focusing your attention the same way that a magician makes you wonder how it is all being done.  The layers which Rouse usually uses are right there in Corner Loading but in a much more transparent package.  It is easier to hear deep into the musical structures of this recording and that exposed nature makes the disc even more hypnotic to me.  You hear exactly what he is doing and it still fascinates and draws you closer into the music.  If this was on in a coffee shop I don’t think I could do much but sit and listen in slack-jawed fascination.

An example of this elegant simplicity hits you right up front with the track “Active Denial.”  Rouse sings the line “Maybe I want to do it again” in melodic and rhythmic unison with the guitar.  He then repeats the lick on the guitar but inserts a single beat rest in the voice between phrases shoving the voice out of phase with the guitar ostinato.  Even better, instead of keeping this phase process as a gimmick for the song, Rouse finds important times to stretch out his melodic line by a beat so he can come back in phase with the guitar for the chorus.

This phasing procedure gets used throughout the disc but in enough deft variations that no track sounds stale.  Regular and irregular phrases are spun out in a natural manner.  Accompaniment patterns change and break up any possibile monotony.  A few tracks, like “My Tide” and “Great Adventure Jail” are accompanied by simple clapping (which isn’t nearly as simple as it sounds).  Great care has also been taken towards the pacing of the CD.  The more repetitive songs “Be Real Bad” and “Trouble Making” are followed up by the quick-fire verses of “Lonesome Shoeshine.”  Songs are very short and focused.  They create their world, do it very well, and then get out.  Tension is also built throughout the disc, too.  The final track “Ad Man” has the thickest and most frenetic guitar texture and the most driving harmonica interjections which makes this song sound like a culmination of all that came before it.

Rouse’s husky vocals are expressive and perfectly matched for this sound world.  There is soul and emotion in each track.  Rouse’s gift in lyrics is also spread all over the songs.  Unlike Recess, Corner Loading doesn’t include the lyrics in the physical disc (they are available on his website) but this never troubled me.  The intimacy of the disc makes the lyrics and their poetic meanings rather clear.  His ruminations on the current societal conditions are just as targeted, poetic, and salient as you would expect.

The whole disc has an immediate appeal that I find runs throughout all of Rouse’s music and there is not an ounce of pretention on the record.  This is a disc I spin a lot.  Beyond the deep post-minimalist structure that is driving each song, the tunes are just damned catchy.

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Mikel Rouse  CD cover art


ExitMusic Recordings

  1. Dolls & Dreams
  2. Cutting Class
  3. What You Want
  4. Plug Nickel
  5. Designing Women
  6. Everything
  7. Family Dollar
  8. Coward
  9. Is That Money
  10. Failure
  11. Empty Nest
  12. Courage

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of ExitMusic Recordings, Mikel Rouse is releasing two new discs.  It might make sense to talk about these two discs (Recess and Corner Loading Vol. 1) together since they share some connective tissues except the exteriors of the discs are so drastically different it can be hard to believe that one man is the creative voice behind both.

Recess is a dense and mesmerizing collage of disperate sonic elements elegantly tied together by Mikel Rouse’s signature vocal style, harmonies, and metrical/temporal play.  Where Gravity Radio‘s aesthetic was closely aligned with a “radio-friendly” sound, Recess drifts back across the complexity spectrum adding layers of audio collage and found sounds on top of the immediately understandable grooves and hooks.  The iPod experience with this album plays on the blend of the ambient recorded sounds with your own environment and often I had to question whether what I heard was “live or Memorex.”  The sonic space of the album is huge and I think frequent iPod listening would be a mistake.  This album sounds BIG and the production level of the disc is a technological and artistic marvel (a marvel which is not properly communicated as mp3s). Recess is such an immersive experience that I have a hard time doing anything else but listen when it is on.

The disc begins with what sounds like a cash register scanning an item and this ubiquitous bleep from our society quickly morphs into a rapid-fire texture.  It is as if the disc takes me sonically backwards to its purchase and then distorts and expands the sounds until the relaxed groove of “Dolls & Dreams” starts up, making this a delicious 21st century updating to Pink Floyd’s “Money.”  Since this album and Corner Loading Vol. 1 were recorded between October 2008 and November 2009 one would expect the topic of finance, wealth, economics, and retirement to be on the front burner.

Everything you want and have come to expect from Mikel Rouse is there in Recess. Sophisticated and nuanced textures and grooves are the DNA of this record.  Poignant lyrics and spoken text elements are also in play.  Recess might be quoted less as Facebook status updates as Gravity Radio but there is a lot to be said for these lyrics which are consistent in their truth and profundity.  Rouse’s word play in “Cutting Class” is especially present with the lines “Being old is like being young, but not as young today” and the inverse “Being young is like being old, but not as old today.”  “Failure” contains lyrical gems such as “You make me believe that the problem is me and not you,” and “I wake up every morning/Cheating death most of the time.”  The sentiment of “Courage just got laid” in the final track helps close the disc in a lighter, brighter place than where we began.

This album’s density is one of its most mesmerizing features.  Where Gravity Radio and International Cloud Atlas were certainly thick it is safe to say that Recess ramps things up a notch further.  The spoken elements often found in Rouse’s works are woven more directly into the musical fabric instead of being used as focal or relief elements.  Rouse fragments speech and transforms it into musical motives similar to Reich’s Different Trains except the adoption and transformation of these spoken elements happens at turbo speed.  Mundane phrases such as “I like the bread, the bread likes you” become earworms of the highest degree.  The number of times I’ve woken up with that specific phrase running through my head cannot be counted.

The thick layers of the album are carefully managed.  Songs have their own life and growth and tracks play well off of each other.  If you are overwhelmed by the first few tracks of the album, Rouse relaxes the tensions with “Plug Nickel” and its quirky three-bar phrase verses and metrical modulation chorus; a good tune that is the kind of thing I wish was on commercial radio more frequently.  After the soundscape “Family Dollar,” “Coward” begins with a mellow, spacey choral sound reminiscent of “Soul Train” from Dennis Cleveland. Once the title emerges in the lyrics in a pseudo sing-song name-calling manner, Rouse hits us with the line “Everyone’s a coward until they get around to it.”  Couple that with the chant “Everybody’s waiting around” and you’ve pretty much described the human condition.

Cyclic elements are also threaded through the disc.  “Empty Nest” launches off the lyric “We end up where we started” and brings back a groove reminiscent of the “Dolls & Dreams.”  The connections from beginning to end are not necessarily as strong as those found in Gravity Radio which makes Recess more of a linear sonic journey than a rounded whole.  The entire album works well as a single composed event but there are ample opportunities to drop in and pick up different subsections of the work as well as songs that lift out independently.

The album is being released on December 7 but you can get at it now via Bandcamp.

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