Thursday, January 4, 2007

Singer-Songwriter Josh Ritter

Recently, Jack the Rabbit basically told me that I was becoming a huge wuss with my musical tastes. While he was discussing the merits of edgy artists like Citizen Cope and The Hold Steady, I was coming back at him with singer-songwriters that play soft, melodic, well-written, and well-crafted tunes. So my first instinct was to counter the ol' Rabbit by using my inaugural post to review an edgy band with a kick-you-in-the-balls attitude.

Well, I didn't. Instead, I'd like to to discuss singer-songwriter Josh Ritter and his Animal Years. While I, like the Rabbit, am not bold enough to declare an album the best of 2006 on my first post, it would definitely be at the top of my list (along with the efforts of Josh Rouse, Dylan, and M. Ward). I first heard Ritter when I came across a live version of Girl in the War at the beginning of the year. I was brought in by the song's soft finger-plucking, and Ritter's passionate vocals and beautiful lyrics (again...wuss). "I've got a girl in the war Paul, her eyes are like Champagne/They sparkle, bubble-over, and in the morning all you got is rain," is the beautiful lyric that Ritter ends the song with; a line that has taken on new meaning for me after reading Michael Hill's fantastic bio of Ritter on his website. Hill tells us that "Ritter explores the deepening dread of the Middle East conflict, imagining his words as an epistle to St. Paul."

I still prefer this live version of the song to the one on the album, mostly because I think that the best way to hear a singer-songwriter of Ritter's type is to hear him as stripped down and unproduced as possible; just a man and his guitar. And for the most part, the album holds true to this stripped down feel. Nowhere is this more true than in Ritter's Idaho, featuring Ritter's voice, a barely audible guitar, and the barn that the song was recorded in (any artist that records in a barn gets my immediate approval). Brian Deck produced The Animal Years, and it should come as no suprise that Deck also produced Iron & Wine's, Our Endless Days Are Numbered, another album where the voice and a sole guitar remain the focus throughout.

Even those songs that incorporate other instruments are done in a way that don't feel overproduced, and done in a way that fit the song. For example, my favorite track on the album, Monster Ballads, needs that soft, constant drum beat and uncomplicated organ to give the song that feel of a cross-country journey. Hill writes that Ritter wanted to make the song sound like Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, and I can think of no better way to describe it. The song conjures up images of traveling in uncharted territories, remembering friends and lovers past, but maintains a sense of hope, "smiling just a little bit."

Good Man lends itself to the same feel as Monster Ballads, with talk of young-love, hard-times, but again leaving you with hope. Line of the song: "Swing up on this little horse, the only thing we'll hit is sunset." Classic Americana images that appeal to our basic natures (...maybe I am a wuss). A final highlight that I will point out is Here at the Right Time, a beautiful, well-written song featuring Ritter and a piano: "Under wide blue skies, there's a place to lie/for me, and Evelyn to hide tonight" (Springsteen? Dylan? Ritter.).

Ritter has just launched a solo acoustic tour in intimate venues across North America from Jan. 28 to March 1. Go if you're cool. I'll leave you now with the track that got me hooked.


1 comment:

Jack the Rabbit said...

Nice work picking a sissy artist that is not embarrassing for you. I own and enjoy The Animal Years and I am looking forward to seeing JR in concert in Feb.

One of the important meters to judge an artist on (alongside talent, poignancy, etc) is arrogance. Just wanted to mention that Josh Ritter ran the New York City marathon, then held a concert in the city, charging $200 a head. Arrogant?

Maybe that should be vetted in a full post.

Until then,

J the R