Josh Ritter
The Animal Years
2006
C+



josh Ritter has hit the trifecta when it comes to things folk singers should avoid: massive popularity in Europe (he already has a Irish Ritter-only cover band), comparisons to Bob Dylan (a song on his last album, 2003’s Hello Starling, titled “You Don’t Make it Easy Babe” made such comparisons…well…easy), and songs you may have heard on an HBO series (Six Feet Under). While the first and the last are probably commercially beneficial, when I tend to hear the words “folk singer,” “big in Ireland,” and “that song on that episode where so-and-so dies” and, immediately, all sensory receptors shut down. And yet, and yet…the guy (Ritter) has a set of pipes that, if able to be pictured, would be under “folk voice” if “folk voice” appeared in an encyclopedia (I just checked Wikipedia and, in fact, folk voice brings up Sussie Nielsen: Danish folk-y, big in Ireland). And, and he can write a song.

On Ritter’s second major label release, the occasionally exhilarating, mostly tepid Animal Years, Ritter picks up where the Dylan-comparisons and Euro-success left off—with the same guitar, light drums, heavy piano as previous recordings. The problem is, it’s not all that different. Sure, Ritter has never sounded better—thanks to some fine production by Brian Deck, who has produced for Modest Mouse, Califone, and Iron and Wine—plus some background organ work and pared-down instrumentation on a few tracks is inspired. But, on the whole, Animal Years seems dashed off. Of course, dashed off by a clever songwriter with a helluva voice makes Animal Years a decent album.

As for those exhilarating moments, they tend to happen when Ritter plays with two of the most compelling themes of this album: the rollicking, free-wheeling joy of American-honky-tonk-folk and a deep frustration with the Iraq war. The album’s opener, “Girl in the War,” exemplifies this play between outrage and sweetness with a bright guitar line, rolling drums, and soaring organ to Ritter, stating: “Man I wonder what the hell it is we done.”

He again examines these ideas with a pair of tracks: “Lillian Egypt” and “Idaho” (Ritter’s home state). The former, a knee-slapping, boot stomping number, is about doubloons and villains and silent films. It also has the line: “The last time I saw her she was tied to the train tracks,” making it a surefire winner. On the latter, Ritter makes the most of his assets, singing the first verse entirely a cappella into a bone-dry mic. The guitar comes in rarely, and when it does it does so slowly, and in a similarly dry plunk-plunk pluck that has Ritter humming in a mournful, raspy way. The pairing is The Animal Years’ most jarring, eclectic, and inspired point and it comes far too early. It’s a slog to get to anything else that sounds as exciting and when Ritter gets back to the war it’s a tremendous disappointment. The nearly ten-minute “Thin Blue Flame” sounds like the kind of track that may be a good idea for a live set, but here among some well-spun three-and-a-half minute yarns it’s a long, overly dramatic mistake.


Reviewed by: Ryan Bradley
Reviewed on: 2006-04-13
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