The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter

Last year’s The Animal Years marked a sonic change of direction for Josh Ritter. The young singer songwriter from Idaho had been cast in the role of keeper of the pure folk flame who kept things acoustic and, for the most part, seriously astute. Instead of the usual hew and cry from purist of “sell-out” Ritter’s release was greeted with enthusiastic applause from a variety of musical sectors. Ritter was lauded outside of the musical ring as well by types as diverse as political comedian Bill Maher and master horror writer Stephen King.

With that type of support, Ritter is well armed for further exploration of his new musical realm; his latest release is proof that he’s going in the right direction. Any sense of stifled gravitas is displaced by the disc’s title and cover art. A centurion’s helmet with a bright red plume is highlighted against a stark grey background. As for The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, well, I think the stage has been set for a record that includes smirking histrionics and a band that pillages the studio for alls sorts of instruments, arrangements and rhythms.

Ritter’s army of co-conspirators consists of friends he’s worked with in the past. His general is Sam Kassirer who takes on producer status. Choosing a guy who knows not only Ritter’s past approach to recording but has also been a force in Ritter’s musical transition is genius. Who better to guide the unruly troops into battle? And, according to Ritter, it was a wild group that gathered at a Maine farmhouse in bitter cold temperatures to practice target shooting in the woods and play strings, horns, drums, organ and an array of electric and acoustic guitars during recording sessions.

There is a sense of utter abandon on this recording, as if the musicians could not contain themselves. Everyone seems to be having a great time and the result is a bunch of songs full of pure joy and a real-time feel. Ritter employs a raw openness during recording that allows for extraneous noise and echoing effects. Ritter cites being inspired by Buddy’ Holly’s “Apartment Tapes,” raw recordings that not only capture Holly at his purest but also the sounds of his wife bumping around in the kitchen. “Those recordings sound like a Raymond Carver story” says Ritter, and that seems to be what he is seeking to create on this disc.

Ritter’s songs are well crafted tales that encompass biblical, political and classical references. He writes about gunslingers and missile silos and love. Allegory is often employed, rhyming dictionaries are not. Not that he can’t rhyme; it’s just that those old tricks don’t stand up to where this guy is going.

So “To the Dogs Or Whoever” and “Right Moves” prove Ritter to be a pop-writer. And “The Temptation of Adam” proves him still to be a mighty folky. Oh, heck, all these songs prove him to be an immensely talent, erudite, unconventional and entertaining artist.

WYEP Afternoon Mix host Rosemary Welsch