Mikel Rouse – Corner Loading (Vol. 1) [12/7/10] – ExitMusic 1014, 36:03 ***1/2:
(Mikel Rouse – writer, arranger, producer, guitar, vocals, harmonica)
The last thing someone might expect from composer, performance artist and multimedia exploiter Mikel Rouse is an acoustic blues release but that is what he has created for his newest venture, Corner Loading (Volume 1), a 36-minute, 13-track album of country blues. In typical Rouse style, there is more than meets the ear here. Rouse’s version of Southern blues examines early microtonality, shifting polyrhythms and off-the-beat cadences instead of the constraints of 12-bar blues. It is a reconceptualization of Depression-era blues akin to keen artists such as Mississippi John Hurt or Charley Patton who later influenced other forward-thinking musicians such as John Fahey or Robbie Basho.
Rouse’s blues has a refined simplicity that is transparent – his voice and acoustic guitar are upfront and nothing is hidden by dense orchestrations or digital maneuverings – but there is subtle intricacy beneath the graceful surfaces. On initial listening, Rouse’s originals appear no different than material by Keb’ Mo’ or Corey Harris. But listen closely and Rouse’s technical inventiveness comes to the fore. “Active Denial” is one example. Rouse sings his opening line in harmony with a six-string blues motif. Then, as he repeats the guitar riff, he vocally adds a beat pause between his lyrical phrases, which slightly puts his voice out of sync with his guitar. Rouse then elongates his melodic line by another beat so everything comes back into the same time signature when he reaches the chorus. Rouse deftly undertakes variations of this same rhythmic evolution on other tunes. During “My Tide” he sings a cappella with handclaps as the sole rhythmic accompaniment and again changes the beat: it’s the equivalent of patting a hand on your head in one tempo and a rubbing your stomach at a somewhat separate beat. Try it, it isn’t as easy as it seems.
Lyrically, Rouse takes a mostly secular approach – without denying religious hope – while dealing with themes of faith and belief. This is apparent on the call for peace, “Busy Humanist,” where Rouse states, “Take a lonely road on the way to amnesia/In a country where they let go of all reason/It’s like a swan dive into a sea of confusion.” On this and other songs, Rouse’s earnest and unassuming voice echoes the personalized political and social discourse championed by early Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs or Woody Guthrie. Rouse’s character studies are equally compelling. He discharges quick lyrical stabs on “Lonesome Shoeshine,” which combines surreal lines (“Hail this magic moment, put your hot wings on hold”) with rapid blues licks. The first-person tale of the “Ad Man” has a slicing harmonica, the record’s most furious guitar parts and a confessional Madison Avenue profile, “I am an ad man and I’m drowning people every day/Making sure every inch of airspace promises to pay” and the telling couplet, “I am an ad man and I broke the bank to buy more time/Packaging children I’ll do anything to make a dime.”
Rouse’s interpretation of acoustic blues may not convince die-hard blues fans – he’s a long way from being Robert Johnson or Eric Clapton – but Rouse’s measured blues experiment is musically and lyrically persuasive, is undeniably rich in context and he hits his mark even with an underlying conceptual method. Potential buyers should be aware that a digital download is already available via https://mikelrouse.bandcamp.com/album/corner-loading-volume-1, which is also the only place Rouse’s lyrics reside: it would have been nice to see them included with the CD as well.
1. Active Denial
2. (Running Out of Time for) Good News
3. My Tide
4. Made Up, Oh Lord
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
— Doug Simpson