As someone who has just made it through another long, bitter New England winter,
experiencing inches of snowfall in double digits and temperatures in
the negatives, I can more than relate to the exuberance of Josh Ritter's "Snow
Is Gone" on his album Hello Starling. The song perfectly captures
the sweet relief of someone euphoric over the arrival of spring by equating
it with the prospect of new love. This kind of heartfelt joyousness typifies
the album, and when listening to Ritter's music you cannot help but be
affected as well.
Josh Ritter is one of those songwriters who you've probably heard before without knowing it.
He's the guy whose songs are played in the background of TV shows when characters are having
painfully earnest moments (for example, one of his songs was featured during the end credits of
Six Feet Under. Ritter has toured with the likes of Liz Phair and Damien Rice, got glowing notices in both The New York Times
and Maxim, and although Boston-based has a huge following in Ireland of all places: not only is
there a Josh Ritter cover band in Cork, but he has also been voted Top 5 International Male Songwriter in the same group
as Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash in a reader's poll conducted by the Irish music paper, Hot Press.
There's been quite a buzz around Ritter, yet he hasn't broken through to a John Mayer
level of stardom stateside. The problem might be that there are just too many male singer/songwriters for Ritter to stand out from the pack in fact, there was a Village Voice article that addressed the curious proliferation of emerging singer/songwriters named Josh and how to distinguish between them. (For the record, besides Josh Ritter, there are also the Joshes Rouse, Joplin and Kelley).
What distinguishes Ritter from many of them is the engaging simplicity to his music; it's as if he trusts his songs to
stand on their own without heavy production or ornamentation. He has a knack for winsome melodies, at turns tender and
reflective, ebullient and wry, and he is the rare lyricist whose words are gorgeous enough to stand on their own as poetry.
The spareness creates an intimate listening experience, yet is also charming enough to be accessible upon first listen.
But what raises Ritter beyond the John Mayers of the pop world is that his joy in making music is so immense it seems
palpable, and translates into songs of shimmering beauty.
Hello Starling features both energetic crowd-pleasers and graceful acoustic ballads, all sung
with honey-voiced optimism and set against a pleasing arrangement of guitar, piano and occasional violin and mandolin. "Kathleen," a lovely plea to a girl to give the singer a chance and let him drive her home from a party, falls into the former category, and brims with romantic fervor. The gentle ballad "Baby That's Not All" is breathtakingly beautiful in its intimacy, featuring vocals that sound so delicate that it almost feels as if Ritter is crooning softly in your ear.
Two tracks, "Wings" and "Bone of Song," both feature narrative songwriting similar to that
of one of Ritter's heroes, Leonard Cohen. They are simple in their musicality, with Ritter on only acoustic
guitar, but the lyrics have an epic quality to them, sounding timeless yet tied to some sort of mythic past.
"Wings" is vivid and intense, with religious overtones, while "Bone of Song" is a folk fable about a unique kind of muse.
They are the standouts of the album. (Legendary folk singer Joan Baez has even honored Ritter by covering "Wings" on her new album.)
"I'm singing for the love of it/ Have mercy on the man who sings to be adored," Ritter sings on
"Snow Is Gone," and in this era of "American Idol" and other televised musical popularity contests,
it is a heartening sentiment to hear. When I saw him in concert recently, I don't think I've ever seen a happier
person perform on stage. He always wore a shy and gratified smile, whether stomping his feet and letting out a holler
at the beginning of a song, beaming at the members of his band as they jammed, or repeatedly thanking the audience for their warm reception. It was wonderful to see that the joy that radiates from his album radiates from Ritter as well, leaving no doubt in the world that Josh Ritter is indeed making music for the love of it, creating songs that deserve to be adored.