01 July 2008

Anatomy of a Mix: Josh Ritter for Beginners

In honor of the Josh Ritter and Co. concert I attended Friday, I decided to do a (semi)formal introduction of eight tunes to JR - some of his more popular songs that give a glimpse into his musical catalog.

He's been compared to Leonard Cohen, Dylan, and Springsteen, and draws inspiration from Mark Twain - but JR is very much his own man/musician/manician? I can't wrap my head around why he's not more popular, but what can one do beside spread the good word? If you dig what you hear, snag a CD or three, hit up iTunes, or grab passes to a live show. You won't regret it.

And now, on to the mix!

From Josh Ritter (1999)

Stuck to You (The Science Song)
Well there's one more thing, I'll tell you if I can / It is not love that makes a non-stick frying pan...

Story goes that JR was to become a neuroscientist just like his parents. Upon reaching college, he switched majors to "American History through Narrative Folk Music." He combined his former pursuit and his new love in a little song called "Stuck to You," a hidden track on his self-titled debut LP. Twangy and cheeky, this is the first JR song I remember ever hearing, some point sophomore year in college... I wonder if he ever played the Wheaton coffee house...

From Golden Age of Radio (2002)

Come and Find Me
If I could trace the lines that ran / Between your smile and your sleight of hand / I would guess that you put something up my sleeve

Before I'd known that JR lived in Providence for a spell, I long had associated this song with the quiet, empty streets of East Side in August... In any case, this pensive and intimate song floats perfectly into the warm air of anyone's summer evening.

From Hello Starling (2003)

I won't be your last dance, just your last good night / Every heart is a package tangled up in knots someone else tied / I'll be the one to drive you back home, Kathleen

While this song may bring specific joy to the heart of every girl named "Kathleen," it tugs on the heartstrings of every girl with ears thanks to the opening line all the other girls here are stars - you are the Northern Lights. This one is always greeted with deafening cheers in concert, and my favorite lines of the song (the ones above), reach their maximum potential when performed live.

Snow Is Gone
I’m not sure if I’m singing for the love of it or for the love of you

When the weather in New England, or wherever you find yourself, warms up after a dreary winter, it's hard not to be joyous. And to find and declare love on top of it? How is that not worthy of a song? I, myself, find it impossible to (1) not sing along with this song and (2) not smile while doing so. Watch the live version and you'll see I'm not alone in that sentiment.

From The Animal Years (2006)

But I still remember that time when we were dancing / We were dancing to a song that I'd heard / Your face was simple and your hands were naked / I was singing without knowing the words

A sad song in a major key. Some of JR's best work lingers in this seemingly contradictory landscape of tragedy and jubilation - a kind of joyful heartbreak. It blends regret and retrospect with the sentimentality of beautiful days-gone-by... this may be - and I don't say this lightly - a perfectly written song.

Girl In The War
But I gotta girl in the war, Paul, her eyes are like champagne / They sparkle, bubble over, in the morning all you've got is rain

One of two more overtly political songs from The Animal Years, this presents a hypothetical conversation between Peter and Paul (guess which ones), concerning the overwhelming feeling of powerlessness when everything that matters is on the line. This one is sure to give you goose-bumps.

From The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter (2007)

The Temptation of Adam
We passed the time with crosswords that she thought to bring inside / "What five letters spell apocalypse?" she asked me / I won her over singing, "W-W-I-I-I" / She smiled and we both knew that she'd misjudged me

Combining an apocalyptic love story with a sense of humor, this song is one of the more popular among the NPR crowd. Taking place in a missile silo while the subjects guard the "big red button," it's (generally) about knowing that even glorious perfection must come to an end.

Check out a solo live acoustic performance here.

Right Moves
I said, what if we are like the Northern Sky? / What if there are things that come between us that we can't take back and we can't make right? / And you said, I don't know darlin, but I'm here with you / And we're coming to the chorus now!'

A few Fridays ago, I was walking from work to downtown Boston - a hearty but pleasant trip. The sun was shining, it was a warm and breezy day... "Could this get any better?" I asked myself.

This song popped up on my iPod and I instantly broke out into a smile as I strolled down Commonwealth, trying not to dance at the crosswalks. This song is nothing but pure, unadulterated feel-good.


Joe said...

Thanks! A friend gave me a copy of The Historical Conquests of ... recently, and it's been cheering me up ever since.

Which album would you recommend next?

Joe said...

P.S. The lyric in "The Temptation of Adam" is "I won her over singing ..."

Alec said...

I'm a huge fan of The Historical Conquests, but The Animal Years just may be my favorite album of all time. It's a bit more mellow than Conquests (more acoustic), but it's cohesive - like a memory or a stream of thought.

(D'oh. That's what I get for copying and pasting. Fixed it, thanks.)