Josh Ritter : Golden Age Of Radio
(2001, re-released 2009)
To be honest, I lumped Josh Ritter together with certain surfer-dude types populating the music scene in the mid 2000’s (can’t even remember their names) for a few years and didn’t take the time to find out how he actually sounds – until about the year 2010. And it took me until a few weeks ago to finally check out this, his second album.
Golden Age Of Radio was originally released in 2001, in hindsight I call myself lucky that I didn’t buy it until now, as I now own the 2-CD reissue version that on the bonus disc features the whole album played by him solo and acoustic in 2008 in Nashville, as well as a few extra-tracks such as an original demo version (also acoustic) entitled A Country Song which is actually the title track on the original album. Also featured is a nice, but somewhat unremarkable Don’t Wake Up Juniper (it’s a b-side after all) and two Jackdrag remixes (of Come & Find Me and Other Side) plus two quicktime videos I haven’t watched yet.
Some of the acoustic solo versions also show how much better Josh has become as a musician and a singer (listen to album opener Come And Find Me and Me & Jiggs and you’ll know what I am talking about), in the intervening years. But it could just be my proclivity for acoustic music as well – I love stripped-down, basic versions very much (as you will undoubtedly be able to see reflected in future posts on here). Which leads me to my main point of criticism of the original album, as fine as it is. It just shows all too clearly (starting with the booklet photos and the layout) that this is an early effort, and shows him often slightly awkward when it comes to his singing style and a number of tracks suffer from a peculiar slowness which doesn’t become them at all, possibly showing a band unsure yet of themselves. That’s especially the case with Roll On, Me & Jiggs and Harrisburg. All three tracks are recorded in much better versions on the acoustic bonus CD and, especially Harrisburg (minus the slightly annoying Wicked Game/audience interaction bit), on the very fine Live At Iveagh Gardens album (recorded in 2010 in Dublin). The newer versions of those tracks just sound faster, more energetic and just plain better than they do on here. Which is a bit of a shame, as all of them are excellent songs – Me & Jiggs for example, which is probably based on his own experiences in his youth (‘… sitting on a porch, singing Townes Van Zandt…’). Or Roll On – one of his best songs, sounding brilliant and a highlight for me on Live At…, on here it’s quite slow and the vocals aren’t that good.
All of this sounds quite negative, I just realized, but it’s not really meant to be – it is still a very good album: Absolutely fabulous (in both versions) is Leaving, a simple, folky acoustic tune (plus a bit of electric solo guitar). Other Side and Drive Away both remind me in sound/tempo and arrangement of a fairly typical Emo-influenced band (not the screaming kind) on the Polyvinyl label (American Football/Owen for example) – not surprising (and nothing to be ashamed of either!) perhaps given that these songs were probably written in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s – but these influences are long gone and nowhere to be found on his newer releases. Other Side is a lovely song too (particularly the acoustic version), the lyrics a good indication of where Josh Ritter hails from (Moscow, Idaho) – ‘… from the Northwest Passage to the Great Divide – Everybody’s looking for the other side…’.
I like Anne a lot too (again, both versions), especially the lead guitar part (on the original one) – the arrangement and vocals a bit rough hewn for sure, but as a composition it’s already pretty good indeed. Harrisburg has fast become a Josh Ritter fave of mine. As I said, the version on Live At Iveagh … is much better than the one on here, but what’s the same is a certain Southern (Rock) quality of the tune and the immortal lines ‘… and if evil exists it’s a pair of train tracks and the devil is a railroad car…’. You just have to love a song with that line in it, don’t you?
The best song by a long mile for me is Golden Age… – a surefire hit (not in the chart-topping sense, but quality-wise): The slow, acoustic one on the bonus CD isn’t bad at all, but even better is the original version, more up-tempo, nicely arranged and a certain hymn-like sensibility to it, and very fine, anthemic lyrics. Reminds me a bit of early Frames (who Josh Ritter was/is friends with) too. Definitely one of the very best songs he’s ever written and recorded.
Album closer Song For The Fireflies strays into dream-pop territory (and is better than the acoustic version, for a change).
As I mentioned above, Golden Age Of Radio could be described as merely being a pointer towards bigger, better things to come, but to do so and shrug it off as that would be a loss – the things making Josh Ritter as good as he is nowadays are already there. And you would, as I did for quite some time, miss out on hearing a quite a few brilliant songs.
He’s got some fabulous tour posters as well – see the store at http://www.joshritter.com