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Josh Ritter
The Historical Conquests Of Josh Ritter
Sony BMG Records
www.joshritter.com


Josh Ritter is walking a very dangerous path, a path taken by another promising Josh R. many years ago… a path that led from a couple of the finest singer-songwriter records to the inevitable poor choice of 70's rock. Well, unlike that other ill-fated Josh, Ritter hits the 70's style, but doesn't let it overwhelm and change his unique voice. While his previous work has been very storytelling and acoustic-based, The Historical Conquests marks a change in the musical career of Josh Ritter, similar to when Bob Dylan went electric, and I fear it may have the same effect on his fans. But not to worry faithful fans of Josh Ritter, all is not lost, and he doesn't try any disco… thankfully.

The Historical Conquests sports another change in Ritter's music - other than his electrification - and that is his storytelling writing style is somewhat subdued and replaced by songs a bit more personal in nature. This is a welcome change, but having said that, I also miss Ritter's incredible ability to weave a strange tale. His uncanny knack for turning a clever phrase is not lacking, though, as on "To The Dogs Or Whoever" he rambles through quirky phrases like "Jane shot the apple right between the eyes/ I was thinking of her when you came outside/ Lemonade on your breath sun in your hair/ Did I mention how I love you in your underwear?" Lead single "Mind's Eye" borrows its opening guitar riff from The Clash, but diverges after that, building a deliberate rhythm amongst its parts and introducing the world to the new 70's rock influenced Josh Ritter. The good news is that the more you listen to the track, the less disturbing the dated weirdness becomes. "Right Moves" blends the trademark pushing-vocals of classic Ritter with a piano and syncopated/orchestral chorus that could easily have been found on the overproduced bits of Glen Campbell's records from back when. The rhythm and melody are extremely catchy and this song is the perfect juxtaposition of the new and the old Ritter.

"The Temptation Of Adam" is more classic Josh Ritter, after the trumpet intro the song drops into familiar beautiful acoustic guitar territory with some fine fingerpicking and the genius lyrical sensibilities for which Ritter has become famous. This is the lightest and most graceful moment on the record, recalling the finest, most beautiful moments of Hello Starling. "Edge Of The World" continues the downbeat beauty in its solo acoustic instrumental beauty… this track is one and a half minutes of heavenly bliss.

"Real Long distance" may as well be an Elton John piano rock tune… While it is a great song, the lyrical allusions are very 70's and the piano, while rocking, is very derivative… the real difference comes at the breaks where the guitar gets supersonic, something Sir Elton would never have had. Finally, Ritter breaks out the Americana on "Next To The Last True Romantic", steel guitar and train drumming carrying the lo-fi produced tune along its way. "Still Beating" recalls The Animal Years a bit more, a perfectly balanced alt-country tune with heavy folk leanings and eerie production values. It's a fine moment of beauty, filled with nice down-key horn solos and acoustic guitars that leads nicely into the once more Glen Campbell-like tone of the rousing "Empty Hearts". Perhaps the most catching lyrics and lullaby-ish melody on the record, this track is another fine example of the genius of Josh Ritter and the reason why so many have fallen head-over-heels for his music. With the ending chorus going full-bore "Singing don't let me into this year with an empty heart/ With an empty heart/ Don't let me into this year with an empty heart", this would have been an excellent album closer, but after a brief moment's pause, Ritter gives us an example of his jangling acoustic Dylan-isms with the excellent acoustic and chorus reprise of "Wait For Love (You Know You Will)".

Admittedly, most of The Historical Conquests is a bit hard to accept at first. But after having really listened to this record more times than I can count, I have come to a complicit agreement with it. While I have to set it slightly apart from Ritter's previous works, I also have to admit that this is the sound of an artist growing. I miss the uncertainty and spontaneity of his earlier records, but I can also appreciate the methodic and wonderful production on this new record. Some of my favorite artists have released records that were hard to get into at first, but given a little time those slow-burners have become some of my favorite records. I have a feeling that The Historical Conquests is that kind of record… it takes a few times to build a rapport with the soul.

-Embo Blake


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