Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Kat's Korner: Need deeper? Check out Josh Ritter's The Animal Years

Kat: In a world where the break up of no talents like Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey is something to be mourned or Simpson going red headed is "news," it may be a surprise that anyone even tries to make music anymore. When the 'talk' is that a not-hit making, no talent is expecting child number two, what's the point?

Fortunately, real music is made by stronger souls (and talents) than the bits of fluff eating up the news cycle. Josh Ritter is an example of someone taking the time to actually create.

The CD's The Animal Years. The singer and songwriter is Ritter. Is he too clever for the masses? He may be. When he sings "I'm a good man for 'ya, I'm a good man" you may realize how perfect his voice would in a duet with Aimee Mann -- another true artist who can be accused of the apparent crime of "thought." And like Mann, he turn a phrase in a way that catches your ear.

When the pop charts are filled with boys singing the most simplistic songs about breakups (which they insist they don't wish to talk about because it's "private" before launching into the topic) what chance does art have?

Radio waves are coming miles and miles
Bringing only empty boats
Whatever feeling they had when they sailed
Somehow slipped out between the notes

That's from "Monster Ballads" and you can't say Ritter doesn't know what he's up against. The Animal Years won't fill the dance floor. Maybe Ritter can hook up romantically with one of the pop tarts of today?

Is that what it takes currently? I got this CD in April and expected to see some big write ups. I really haven't. The alternative media's done a better job of covering it then the mainstream publications. But then I think, "Well the mainstream was late on the James Blunt bandwagon too." So maybe there's hope for Ritter?

The Animal Years is eleven songs. The first track and the tenth are the ones that will immediately grab you. "Thin Blue Flame" opens with Ritter strumming the guitar and singing for the first four lines before Sam Kassirer joins in on the piano (followed by others). In those four lines, forget the word for a minute, he'll grab you if he's going to grab you.

Brian Deck produced, mixed and engineered the album with such care that the thought of Ritter: At The Tin Angel would have been a natural a few decades back because Ritter can sing, he can play the guitar. Most of all, he can write songs.

It's a Bible or a bullet they put over your heart
It's getting harder and harder to tell them apart
Days are nights and the nights are long
Beating hearts blossom into walking bombs
And those still looking in the clear blue sky for a sign
Get missiles from so high they might as well be divine
Now the wolves are howling at our door
Singing bout vengeance like it's the joy of the Lord
Bringing justice to the enemies not the other way round
They're guilty when killed and they're killed where they're found
If what's loosed on earth will be loosed up on high
It's a Hell of a Heaven we must go to when we die
Where even Laurel begs Hardy for vengeance please
The fat man is crying on his hands and his knees
Back in the peacetime he caught roses on the stage
Now he twists indecision takes bourbon for rage
Lead pellets peppering aluminum
Halcyon, laudanum and Opium
Sings kiss thee Hardy this poisoned cup
His winding sheet is busy winding up
In darkness he looks for the light that has died
But you need faith for the same reasons that it's so hard to find
And this whole thing is headed for a terrible wreck
And like good tragedy that's what we expect

That's from Ritter's "Thin Blue Flame" -- an amazing song and one that demostrates no "War Got Your Tongue?" going on here. The lyrics to track one ("Girl In The War") drive that at home as well:

Peter said to Paul you know all these words we wrote
Are just the rules of the game and the rules are the first to go
But now talking to God is Laurel begging Hardy for a gun
I got a girl in the war man I wonder what it is we done

The lyrics and scope may not be on-the-nose enough for those raised on Justy and Britty's small-world-all-about-me-after-all songs. (I doubt many will catch the nod to Beckett, though I hope I'm wrong.) Are we ready for grown up music yet? How about music that's at least been through puberty, or half-way through?

The pre-teen racket continues to make . . . well, a racket. Long after you thought the pimples and cavities that come from steady listenings would have sent them packing. They don't even sale these days, but they're still all over the airwaves because it's better to keep a nation stupid, apparently, then have them question.

If you're looking for something more, this is a good place to start. It's a musical album. The organ playing on "Girl In The War" will have you bopping along even if the song's meaning escapes you. Songs like "One More Mouth" can grab you with the music, the singing, the on-the-nose reading of the lyrics (a breakup) or a deeper reading of the lyrics:

You act like you don't need nobody else
And you dance like you don't need nobody else
And all the other moths need light
To circle round, while you just fly
Around yourself.

Ritter's got a great deal on his mind. He's an artist grappling with the world around him. Are we ready to applaud that?

I think we are, I think we've been doing that, far from the freeze-dried, dead-on-arrival crap that makes up radio playlists. And with the inroads Green Day and James Blunt have made, possibly even radio is ready for something a little heavier than THUMP-THUMP-S/HE'S-LOOKING-AT-ME-THUMP-THUMP-I'M-SO-SEXY nonsense that's driven listeners from their radios in droves? If you're looking for something a little deeper, a little more musical, a little more poetic, check out Josh Ritter's The Animal Years.

[Note: This is the third of at least seven reviews Kat has planned for the next few days. Saturday, she contributed "Kat's Korner: Neil Young's Living With War -- key word 'Living'" and Monday she contributed "Kat's Korner: Richie Havens: The Economical Collection." She says tomorrow night may be Pink's I'm Not Dead Yet. May.]