Wednesday, August 22, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1172: Josh Ritter

Whenever I’m not having the greatest day, there is always music. Whether I’m facing a hard walk or a long wait, it can all be endured if I’ve got some music to keep me company. And anytime I’m feeling low, or even when I just need to safely feel a little low on my own terms, there is music to help me along.

I wonder what people without music do? Or worse still, those people who listen to the radio, desperately hoping that the next song is going to fill their emotional needs only to be served some random and vacuous hit of the day. Poor bastards.

Disc 1172 is… The Beast In Its Tracks
Artist: Josh Ritter

Year of Release: 2013

What’s up with the Cover? When I first saw this cover I thought there were trees growing out of Josh Ritter’s shoulders. Upon further inspection I see that his shirt is catching fire. The patch on his right shoulder appears to be burning in the shape of a bum, proving this particular fire has a sense of humour.

How I Came To Know It: After I discovered Josh Ritter through his 2006 album “The Animal Years” (reviewed back at Disc 1062) I decided he warranted a full dive. “The Beast In Its Tracks” was one of his albums that I determined was “shelf-worthy”.

How It Stacks Up:  Josh Ritter has nine studio albums, and I own four of them. “The Beast in its Tracks” comes in 3rd out of those 4. What can I say? Competition is fierce.

Ratings: 4 stars

I see “The Beast in its Tracks” as a comeback album for Josh Ritter, but it really isn’t. Ritter only began charting in the last eight years or so, and “Beast” was part of that popular success. Note that “charting” and “popular” are relative term when you’re talking about indie folk music, but you get the point.

But for me Ritter’s best work spans from 2002-2006 and the records between then and 2013 don’t resonate the same. That is all cured on “Beast” which sees Ritter’s ever evolving style move to something that is gentle and uplifting musically, while still providing thoughtful lyrics. In short, Ritter seems to have mellowed out.

On his earlier records, Ritter’s production is a pretty stripped down folk, with plenty of pretty guitar work. That is all present on “Beast” as well, but the production is lighter and airier, with Ritter singing consistently in his high register. The album takes on a very ethereal quality, and the low end bass notes are muted or missing. It reminded me heavily of early Simon and Garfunkel with the soft recital quality of the Frances Luke Accord. I expect that last reference isn’t much help…look them up in the sidebar if you’re curious.

The guitar work has a gentle jangle, and a light picking style that makes you want to go cycling down a country lane, or maybe hang out at a stream and pick flowers for your girl. It feels pastoral and pleasant.

There are times this sound feels a little twee, and had me wishing for a bit more gravitas, but those times were rare. For the most part, the sound put my head into a receptive reverie, ready to let Ritter’s stories wash over and into me.

The opening tracks on the album are good, but they’re not my favourites. Things pick up at Track 5 with “Nightmares” which has a guitar so whimsical you’d swear it was a ukulele (I checked though – no sign of ukulele in the credits).  Then Ritter cleverly crosses that whimsy with terrifying imagery like:

“Nightmares have their dreams as well
And when they sleep they go to hell
And drink their fill on lakes of blood
Canter ‘cross the skull-paved
And nurse their little colts on fires
Their coltish teeth like kitchen knives
And look down from abysmal cliffs
Their dead hair by the lead wind riffed
On denizens too deep to see
Whose own dreams nightmares’ nightmares in
I know where the nightmares sleep
On what fodder they feed.”

Translation: everyone has nightmares – even nightmares. You’re not alone. No wonder the song has a ukulele-like whimsy; it’s comforting.

On “New Lover” Ritter has a similarly “happy” message, as he tells his old lover he’s happy and moved on, and hopes the same for her…before ending with:

“But if you’re sad and you are lonesome and you ain’t got nobody true
I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me happy too.”

Here again, is the album’s hidden charm. Ritter has found a way to sing gently about dark thoughts, sugar-coated like a pill from Miracle Max to help it go down easier.

Not all the songs have darkness underneath. Many of the songs on “Beast” are just pretty little romantic songs. The kind of thing you play for your girl to impress her with your love around a campfire. Of course, if you play guitar you know that your girl has heard you rehearse the crap out of that song, so by the time you pull it out at the campfire chances are you’ll be sick of it, and so will she – although she’ll still appreciate the sentiment.

Fortunately, I never heard Josh Ritter sit around his house and compose these perfect little songs – they arrived for me in finished form; thoughtful little songs that wrapped me up in a little doubt, a lot of love and just the right amount of jangle.

Best tracks: Nightmares, New Lover, Heart’s Ease, The Appleblossom Rag, In Your Arms Awhile, Joy to You Baby

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