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You Mean Rouse, Right? No, I Mean Joplin. Maybe Ritter. But for Damn Sure Not Kelley

Not Joshing Around

This column began when I caught Josh Rouse at the Bottom Line and was struck by the fact that he wasn't Josh Rouse. Arriving midset, I'd found him more likable than expected--self-deprecating and funny and worried when his record company didn't answer the phone. His voice was assertive, his sensitivity under control. And during some patter a fan in the sparse late-show crowd yelled "Josh Joplin" and I muttered "Ulp." Grimly recalling the Choice where I'd complained that "Rouse" could use more knee-slappers, I prayed the fact-checkers had bailed me out.

They had. But feeling I owed Josh something, I scoured my bottom shelves for Josh Joplin's 2002 The Future That Was on Artemis, as well as Josh Rouse's 1972, released August 26, Josh-signed liner notes to the first 100 lucky costumers to order it from Ryko. And wait a second, what's this? Right next door it's Josh Ritter's Hello Starling, due September 9 from Signature Sounds. And over here, Josh Kelley's For the Ride Home, out since June 3 on Hollywood. Four guys named Josh wearing their hearts on their guitars--and that's not counting country comer Josh Turner, or DIY piano man Josh Weinstein. No wonder I'd lost my bearings.

Faced with a coincidence verging on a phenomenon, I took refuge in demographics. Though Joshua has been the fourth most popular boy's name since the '90s, in the '70s, when all these artists were born, it wasn't top 25. So attribute their creative proclivities to families a little ahead of the curve. The College of Joshes, I dubbed them as I did my homework--the kind of artist critics play, file, and slowly forget about. All have their supporters, with Friend of Lambchop Rouse the most prestigious and Dave Matthews fan Kelley the most "commercial"--his debut single, "Amazing," went Top 20, a coup that has yet to propel his $12.98-list album into the Top 200. I have nothing against honorable craftsmen scraping by in a depressed, overloaded musical marketplace. But eventually I started cringing slightly as they came round on the CD changer. Taken together, these four are an object lesson in the limits of talent. Mama don't let your babies grow up to be folkies.

Folkies? Except for Ritter, who emigrated from Idaho and Oberlin to get closer to Boston's Club Passim, none of them would cop to that moniker. Nashville-based Nebraskan Rouse says 1972, when he was born, is also his favorite year in music--for Al Green and Marvin Gaye and Steely Dan and David Bowie and, OK, Nick Drake, but not, hmm, Don McLean or Cat Stevens or James Taylor. Pennsylvanian turned Brooklynite Joplin is a reformed "hardcore folk singer" who records as Josh Joplin Group even if he couldn't afford to bring his k-b-d to the Bottom Line. Ole Miss grad Kelley tells tall tales about regaling "some sorority crawfish function out in the sticks" with his trusty acoustic but gets the full treatment from Matthews henchman John Alagia, who's also produced the much jazzier Jason Mraz and the much cuter John Mayer.

With tour support a bittersweet memory of the boom years, however, all four and thousands like them are compelled to stand there with their Martins around their necks and beg the world to listen to their songs. Their records prove they know better--and also that, while they would have been suckers for Don McLean and Cat Stevens then, they now understand why music lovers prefer Marvin Gaye and Steely Dan. Heard four or five times rather than the once they get on tour, all reveal themselves not just as strong melodists but as guys who value a sharp arrangement. Within their narrow ambit they're all distinct, too.

Kelley is the hooky stomach-turner, hammering home the breathy ache in his voice like the business end of a dildo. Peeking through the shows of sentiment and pledges of devotion is a womanizing oaf who's a bitter creep compared to John Mayer, and he considers any lyric more concrete than "And I want to make you see/You are everything to me" too heady for his target audience. Ritter's light tenor-baritone recalls songpoets gone out of style--a rougher and drawlier Steve Forbert (or Don McLean). His language manages to be simple and imagistic simultaneously--"man burning at both ends" in his it-ain't-me-babe mode, "I won't be your last dance just your last goodnight" when he goes for vulnerability. Gratifyingly up in tempo and mood for a Nick Drake admirer, Rouse earns his rep by realizing his promised Marvin-Dan fusion and abjuring generalization: "Spanish girl with a tattoo working nights at the drive-thru," whew. But beyond the Midwestern gayboy bildungslied "Flight Attendant," his well-turned songs wisp away. Thanks to pithy phrasemaking--"The future is a stereo that eats your favorite tapes," "I am not the only cowboy in this one-horse metaphor"--Joplin's don't. But though his unsubtle voice connects live, on record he sounds like a solo artist leading a band named after himself, and his satire proves a similarly blunt instrument.

Having failed to distinguish between Josh Joplin and Josh Rouse, I found that both were talented guys who led me to two somewhat less talented semi-namesakes. But in a vastly overpopulated field, they'll be lucky to scrape by. Todd Snider can't match their songwriting technique, but at the Bottom Line his knee-slappers blew Josh away. My favorite Josh is Josh Davis--DJ Shadow to you. These days, he beats Steely Dan a mile.

Village Voice, Sept. 2, 2003