MAYBE IT'S THE suddenly resurfacing childhood memory of riding around in the pleather back seat of a wood-paneled station wagon with the AM radio on, or maybe it's because I'm one of about six million 30-year-olds I know whose music tastes have mellowed in proportion to the rise of rowdy 'n' ridiculous teen faves Limp Bizkit and Korn, or perhaps I've gone completely insane. But suddenly, I like soft rock.
No, I haven't traded in my Pavement and Built To Spill CDs for store credit and then snuck off to a corner to flip through the James Taylor discs (though now that I mention it . . .). Instead, I've begun seeking out new records by my peers, a growing legion of guys and gals with guitars, who've decided—either consciously or not—to revisit the smooth, melodic sounds that once were the domain of the Eagles and Cat Stevens. Better yet, these newcomers inject modern, progressive traits like sarcasm and wit where the one-time rulers of soft rock fixated on cocaine or religious cults.
I've lately spent the better part of my leisure time reveling in the ringing chords and singalong choruses of recent albums by Josh Rouse and Joe Pernice, who collectively have sold fewer records than the newest selection of sound effects in the "Songs from the Barnyard" series. In an alternate universe, Rouse got last year's Grammy for his trumpet-laced gem of a pop tune, "That's What I Know." The record it succeeded was Pernice's 1998 stroke of genius, the string-soaked Pernice Brothers track "Wait to Start." But in this universe, where adult-alternative radio stations decide what's hot and what's not, next to nobody knows who these guys are, mostly because they're on indie labels but also because they have the audacity to put songcraft before image.
"Who am I?" asks the 27-year-old Rouse, sounding feistier than on any of his recordings. "I'm a young-looking white guy from Nebraska. My biggest problem is I don't have a shtick."
Rouse, who now lives in Nashville, recorded "That's What I Know" with his friend and neighbor Kurt Wagner of Lambchop—another batch of serene rockers. The duo's EP Chester, released on Merge, garnered a few positive reviews and a smattering of college airplay. Still, it fared less well than Rouse's 1998 debut, Dressed Up Like Nebraska, which the singer-songwriter says sold somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 copies. His next solo record, Home, comes out March 21 on Ryko, and the label has high hopes for the single "Directions."
"I think it's a catchy song that stands as much chance as anyone's," notes Rouse. "But radio's a crapshoot."
RADIO WAS NEVER much of an option for Pernice, who has released albums as leader of the bands the Scud Mountain Boys, the Pernice Brothers, and, most recently, Chappaquidick Skyline. Despite having crafted a catalog of sharply honed three-minute pop songs, the Massachusetts stalwart has had little luck getting songs on commercial radio outside Boston, and his former label, Sub Pop, couldn't pry his music onto the airwaves.
Rather than dwell on the negative, Pernice has decided to focus on the areas he can control. He'll release his next project on his own label, and he's dedicated to reaching an audience through word-of-mouth, the music press, and by performing live.
"You've just got to keep whacking at it, making mailing lists and databases of people who come to your shows," he says. Another possibility is the Internet, either through digital downloads offered on Web sites or the thousands of radio Webcasts that have sprung up in the past year.
"As technology gets better, Internet radio will play a bigger part," Pernice notes, then regains his cynicism. "Like anything else, once that gets successful, it'll be corrupted too."
Some would argue that adult-alternative radio isn't broke, however. Kevin Sutter of Bellevue's McKeon Music Marketing has seen dozens of bands come up through the Triple-A format and break big. He notes that unlike the narrow playlists of modern-rock or Top-40 stations, which typically play a handful of songs 30 or more times a week, a Triple-A station keeps its rotations looser. Industry stars like Seattle's The Mountain or Chicago's WXRT will even take chances, slipping thoughtful artists like the Old 97's in among the lowest-common-denominator acts—the Smashmouths and Savage Gardens—that pay the bills.
Still, when it boils down to the bottom line, talented acts like Rouse and Pernice lose.
"A Josh Rouse may ultimately have a broad appeal," says Sutter. "But initially it'll touch only a small part of the average base of listeners. That's the program director's dilemma."
PROGRAM DIRECTORS FACE intensifying pressure. In the past five years, radio companies have consolidated down to only a few major chains, and the record industry is quickly following the trend; by early next year, only three major labels may be left. The results are already evident. Rock playlists now overlap at alarming rates; the current charts show artists like Filter, Foo Fighters, and Third Eye Blind migrating from the modern rock to the adult format, edging out softer acts.
Even the electronic dance artist Moby, who has previously dabbled in hard rock, had to claw his way to radio before his latest, more subtle, record went gold. Matt Pollack, head of promotions for Moby's label, V2, says that he and his co-workers exhausted all other promotional angles before modern rock and then Triple-A stations added Moby's songs to playlists.
"If it falls under that lighter sound," Pollack says, "you'd better have another way to break them."