REVIEW: Josh Ritter: Golden Age of Radio
Josh Ritter: Golden Age of Radio [Signature Sounds Recordings, 2002]
Three words? Country sky songs.
Within the first fifteen seconds of Golden Age of Radio, Josh Ritter's music has become an old friend. It sits with you in the screened-in porch, feet up, reading James Thurber. You go driving in an old green car, the carseat springs squeaking as you go over the bump, cornfields waving at you from the reverie of your headlights. You stay up late, laughing, sometimes saying something sad about an old love and seeing her face in the fire.
Ritter's is music for AM radio when it was good; for afternoons, evenings and mornings; for loss, love and redemption. His aim is not always perfect but his talent is unquestionable, and the first three tracks of Golden Age of Radio make for the finest hat-trick opening of any LP so far this year.
Ritter does not merely speak - he really sings - and on "Come and Find Me" it is his dirt-path voice over acoustic guitar: simple, honest, perfect. Ritter has a poet's patter - his lyrics tumble like wet stones, consonants bouncing off of each other with a master's rhythm. "I could trace the line that ran / betwen your smile and your slight of hand / I guess that you put something on my sleeve." Like Springsteen, like Guthrie, he sings of love without sounding like a child; it's the love that travels in a gaze, in words whispered to the moon. "Me & Jiggs" clatters out of the bedroom with a drum stamp and farmland pedal-steel; the grit in Ritter's voice now hints at whiskey and big-mouthed laughs. "Me and my friends / sitting in the park / drinking beer beneath the trees ... Sittin' on the porch singin' Townes Van Zandt / Play guitar to burn off the ounce." It's fierce, energetic - but also kind: this is a raucous celebration, not arrogance. At three minutes it's an absolutely perfect length - country rock like Jeff Tweedy in the old days, bandmates grinning and stars wheeling.
And then there's "You've Got the Moon".
I, like many another rock critic, have often used Nick Drake as a reference point. "Kathryn Williams is a female Nick Drake"; "REM takes a page from the Nick Drake songbook"; "The new Slayer album is pure Drake". But outside of the man's own albums, never - never - have I heard as Nick Drake a song as "You've Got the Moon". Ritter pulls out a party trick that feels neither forced nor opportunistic - it may be an affectation, but it's sincere. With the whispered, falsetto vocals, the baroque folk guitar, the images of forest and sky - Ritter could only be paying his respects, laying a flower on Drake's Tamworth-upon-Arden grave. It's an absolutely gorgeous song, quiet and understated. Oh, and it's about love.
"Lawrence, KS" carries us back into the organ-filled backroom bar, like middle-period Bob Dylan with a better voice. Everywhere there are echoes - here, Neil Young; there, Elliott Smith. Smog waves from the wings on "Drive Away". Ritter's songwriting is as assured as Hayden or Songs:Ohia, but it's perhaps Billy Bragg whom he most recalls - wholehearted earnesty; hopeless romance; lazy melodies such as the trudging "Anne" alongside slow burners like "Roll On" and rockers like the title track. "Golden Age of Radio" is, tragically, the album's poorest song: strained vocals pulled over ho-hum midtempo country. Although the rest of the disc never again matches the glory of "Come and Find Me", "Me & Jiggs" or "You've Got the Moon", it remains excellent. Josh Ritter's talent glows with a fierceness that outstrips even the best work of Pete Yorn and Josh Rouse, and sets the stage for a long and extraordinary career.