A friend told me to listen to Josh Ritter. Not the son of the late John, but a young folk singer from Idaho. Folk-rock, alternative-country, it all boils down to poetic misery and a guitar, and I love it. So how come I’d never heard of him? This feeling of wonderment turned quickly to embarrassment and shame once I put on his new album, “Hello Starling.”
First of all, Josh Ritter is amazing. An album hasn’t made me feel this way since I was fifteen and heard Tom Waits’ album “Closing Time.” My late discovery of the Jayhawks last spring doesn’t seem as significant compared to this, and they’ve been around much longer than Ritter. Still, with two previously-lauded albums under his belt, I felt like an idiot not to have heard Josh Ritter before. Where’s he been hiding?
Ireland, apparently. Ritter has won so many awards there that he is practically on equal footing with Johnny Cash and David Gray (although whether those two are on equal footing themselves is a question of Irish versus American thinking). After his second album, “Golden Age of Radio,” came out in 2002, Ritter was invited on a tour of Ireland by The Frames. Following the tour, he relocated to France with David Odlum, an Irish producer, to record “Hello Starling” in an old dairy barn using some of Curtis Mayfield’s old equipment.
The result is a simple and very fresh sound. The album’s happy lonesome feeling sets in immediately. The first track, “Bright Eyes,” just feels good. The sound is familiar but all his own. Songs like this one and the quiet “You Don’t Make It Easy Babe” explain why Ritter has been compared to Norah Jones. But while he is equally unique, Ritter’s sound is more flexible. He keeps good company without copying. Though sometimes sung with a haunting sadness, his vocals are too young and clear to compare to Tom Waits, and although he occasionally sings in a scratchy sort of half-mumble like Pete Yorn or Bruce Springsteen, he doesn’t fall into the trap of over-imitation like Yorn does.
The influence of Ritter’s guitar work is a little easier to trace. “The Snow is Gone” is upsettingly similar to Ryan Adams’ “New York, New York” (off of his 2001 album, “Gold”). But Ritter is no protege of Adams. What overlap they have is most likely due to Gillian Welch, who collaborated with Adams on “Gold” and is one of the reasons Ritter quit the study of neuroscience for music while he was at Oberlin. Both Ritter and Welch have a penchant for writing about “lowlands,” but though Ritter is just as raw, he’s not as dark. With “Hello Starling,” Ritter might even have surpassed Welch as a songwriter. He has the ability to meander through different moods while maintaining a balance between the song and the album. Songs like “Wings” and “Baby That’s Not All” reveal a depth that pulls in the listener yet doesn’t tire out the album. Tellingly, the former is being covered by Joan Baez for her next album. “Hello Starling” is a definite classic.