When V2′s North American label closed down last year, Josh Ritter was riding high with a performance on The Letterman Show. The next day he found himself label-less. Not wanting to be discouraged, he went back to basics with this, his fifth album.
No label, in the US at least, means no commercial pressures and more importantly no-one breathing down your neck. Many artists would have gone wild creating bizarre and unstructured pieces of work, but Ritter’s work is as accomplished as before.
The songs here were written on the road and performed by a band besieged in a Maine farmhouse by freezing temperatures. There’s a sense of camaraderie that such close quarters can generate, and whilst this is still Ritter’s show the limelight isn’t necessarily as hogged as the title suggests.
After the serious songwriting of 2006′s The Animal Years, this album seems more concentrated on having fun and there is also a definite effort on Ritter’s behalf to put melody first and lyrics second. He even spent time learning the piano, happily bashing away to achieve the sound he wanted. The key word here is spontaneity and the album really benefits as a result.
Despite Ritter saying that the album’s main influences are Paul McCartney and Buddy Holly, To The Dogs, Or Whoever sparks things off with a touch of ramshackle enjoyment reminiscent of Bob Dylan‘s Basement Tapes era. The odd stream of consciousness lyrics certainly call Dylan to mind, with the imagery of Joan of Arc and Moby Dick thrown into the mix.
The album’s highlights are as good as we’ve come to expect from him. The Temptation Of Adam is a beautiful ballard: a fantasy about World War III that makes even Armageddon sound romantic. Rumors also adds to the fun atmosphere with a pleasing melody and a bit of oompah-oompah courtesy of some quality horns. Another high spot is when haunting guitars give way to Wait for Love’s vocals sounding eerily like John Lennon. And is that the strings for Arcade Fire‘s Laika cropping up in Empty Hearts?
However, some tracks do sail past quite unnoticed. In particular the Springteenian Open Door is a good piece of songwriting, but it lacks that little bit extra to draw the listener back. There are also a couple of short sub-two minute tracks which, although thoroughly competent, feel a little bit like padding.
Overall, this is a fun, accessible and enjoyable slice of Americana, but lacking in that oomph to make you listen repeatedly. The go-it-alone approach has yielded some interesting results and it would certainly be good to see this set performed live. While this might not be the stuff of legend, the history books are sure to treat him well.