Rating: BThe hardest part about writing these reviews is "the angle." How can I write a story about an album that's fresh and compelling? What unique insight can I bring to an artist's work (particular one that, in the case of Hello Starling, is eight years old)? I always think the song-by-song breakdowns are indulgent and silly, but at the same time, one has to talk about the music when writing an album review.
When I evaluate Hello Starling, my tendency is to compare it to the other Josh Ritter albums I own: The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter and his most recent effort, So Runs the World Away. With respect to my concern about a fresh, appealing angle, it seems like nothing could be less interesting than my saying "I liked it better than Historical Conquests, but not quite as much as So Runs the World Away." That said ... yeah.
Ritter is a big fan of the idea of "jubilance" (his blog is called The Book of Jubilations) and, like in Historical Conquests, his best tunes here are in that vein. "Kathleen" takes a typical emo unrequired love scenario ("I know you are waiting / And I know that it is not for me") and finds a small victory ("Both our hearts have a secret / Only both of us know / 'Bout the night I drove you back home Kathleen"). The song manages to hold a devastating candor - "Every heart is a package / Tangled up in knots someone else tied" - without even the barest hint of cynicism, and impressive feat. "Snow Is Gone" is similarly joyous, and "Man Burning" has a bouncy feel despite some rather dark lyrics about penitence.
Where Hello Starling exceeds Historical Conquests is the slow tunes don't fall flat, most of them, anyway. "Wings" features one of Ritter's best vocal performances to date, stark over finger-picked guitar and dark lyrics with a religious theme and a twist ending. "You Don't Make It Easy Babe" is also sung quietly over acoustic arpeggios, but in this case it's almost an ironic counterpoint to the violent imagery in the lyrics. Some of the later tunes on the album - "California," "Bone Of Song," "Baby That's Not All" - are pretty forgettable, but all-in-all this is an album Ritter fans will want in their collections.