Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter

Rating: B-

I just reviewed Ritter's latest offering, So Runs the World Away, but I enjoyed his performance at The Festy so much that I had to go back to the well. As a fan of music, it's often hard for me to get into a second album by an artist / act / band if I really loved the first one; even if the album is strong, it tends to suffer by comparison, even if just in my head.

The first track, "To the Dogs or Whoever" (the title oddly doesn't appear in this song but does appear in later track "Empty Hearts"), is a great example of what Josh Ritter is capable. Each line is peppered with words, syllables, and imagery. The opening line "Deep in the belly of a whale I found her" grabbed me right away with the staccato stops of the "b" and "p" sounds, then stretching out the long vowel sounds in "whale" and "found" - it's aurally appealing. "To the Dogs" doesn't have a linear plot, instead overwhelming the listener with different scenes: a woman trapped in a whale, Joan of Arc, contrasting images of fabled engineer Casey Jones and fabled baseball player Casey At the Bat. This lyrical montage spans through time, and is offset against less romantic, er, romantic imagery: "I love the way she looks in her underwear." Finally, the chorus explodes in an exuberant "I though I heard somebody callin' in the dark." It's driving, joyful, dense, and wonderful.

The rest of the album has its moments, but nothing approaching the brilliance of the first track or of the best moments on So Runs the World Away. More typical are solid pop songs like "Real Long Distance" or "Rumors": lots of energy, some clever but repetitive lyrics, a nice enough meolody, but ultimately forgettable. The album is also intermittently plagued by the production. "Right Moves" has some clever lyrics and a catchy melody, but the strings that run through the chorus and some of the verses coat the song in too much shellac. Even in "To the Dogs or Whoever," Ritter's vocals have an odd distortion on them that's distracting. This also shows up in "Next to the Last Romantic." Ritter's at his best when his lyrics and voice have a simple, clear production to shine through, as in the gentle acoustic guitar picking on "The Last Temptation of Adam" or the a-little-bit-rough-but-not-too-much barroom stomp of "Wait For Love."

I have to keep asking myself if these are fair criticisms and if I'm holding The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter and Ritter himself to a standard above what I would hold an ordinary album too. But I've given myself a lot of time with this album, waiting for something to grab me, and it hasn't yet. It's still a good pop album, with one stellar track, but I can't recommend it unequivocally like So Runs the World Away.

Josh Ritter official site

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