I’m constantly searching for that sweet spot where rock meets country meets alt-country meets folk meets pop meets indie rock meets smart lyrics meets catchy tunes meets interesting meets accessible.
One of my mellower faves the past few years has been Hem – a laid-back country-folk-pop outfit that has a penchant for sweeping melodies, lush yet restrained instrumentation, and soaring, beautiful vocals and vocal harmony. While they may skew slightly too far towards country for some (closed-minded fools), or too delicate for some (hot-headed idiots), they remain close to my heart. To that end, a couple years ago I went to see Hem at the Double Door in Chicago, as they opened for a guy I had only barely heard of named Josh Ritter. The show was kind of a disaster, as the folk-rock rowdies all waiting for Josh Ritter weren’t terribly respectful to the pencil-necked steel-guitar-and-harp fans who were there to listen to Hem. I’m fairly sure I spent most of their performance being frustrated at the crowd around me, and cautiously sizing everybody up to decide who it was safe for me to single out and aggressively shush. At any rate, poor Hem muddled through their show as I internalized all the collective shame I felt everyone in the audience should have been feeling. After Hem’s retreat from the face of loud barroom indifference, the headliner, Josh Ritter, came out looking and sounding like a kind of shit-kicking folkie, in the mold of a snarling young Dylan, and/or the mold of a snarling hipster like Ryan Adams.
The previously raucous crowd was immediately rapt, and my all the frustration and embarrassment I had felt for my poor, gentle Hem was instantly transformed into hatred for Josh Ritter and his unfair, arrogant sway over the boozy group. I shrugged my way through his set (an admittedly varied bunch of folk-rock rave-ups and introspective ballads). I was curious enough in spite of myself to download his at-the-time current release, The Animal Years, but my irritation at the concert had poisoned his well with me sufficiently that I listened a few times and set the album aside, generally unimpressed.
A couple years later I started putting together a selection of music that blurred those aforementioned lines between folk/rock/country/etc and decided to release The Animal Years from its mini-purgatory and add it to the burgeoning iTunes playlist. I found as I listened to that shuffled assemblage of impressive songs (ranging from Fleet Foxes to Great Lake Swimmers to The Low Anthem to M. Ward to Bon Iver to Andrew Bird) that the occasional Josh Ritter tracks sort of stood out, catching my attention somehow.
The Animal Years doesn't work particularly well for me as a whole album from beginning to end, but it does have a great, almost exclusively sparse, acoustic sound and most of the songs are extremely well-written. (A notable exception is the song "Thin Blue Flame" -- an eight-minute political preachy clunky folky faux-masterpiece with all the lyrical nimbleness of Barry McGuire's classic of modern verse, "The Eve of Destruction" and all the subtlety of Tool. Naturally, this is the song many reviews choose to highlight as a shining example of Ritter's Dylanesque brilliance, while I contrarily think of it as the quintessence of ham-fisted pretension.) All in all, though, the record was a good deal better than I remembered it, and only made stronger for being interspersed among some other music.
So, the years (and a couple better Hem shows) having mellowed my ire, I checked out what Josh Ritter has been up to the past little while, and ended up downloading his most recent album from 2007, The Historical Conquests Of Josh Ritter. In contrast to my previous feelings about his albums, Conquests works extremely well as a whole album: the sound is beefed up; there's a better balance of plugged-in rockers and acoustic tearjerkers; and the songs are still clever, yet shorn of some of the more insufferable politicking and lyrical showboating. It's a real good album, strong from start to finish. There's some Dylan, some Springsteen, even some Spoon/M. Ward/Bright Eyes. With some of this rocking & rolling and balladeering and genre-mixing-&-matching Ritter's up to, he might be getting perilously close to that musical-hybrid sweet-spot I'm always looking for. Stay tuned...
Photo of Hem courtesy of David Greenwald @ Rawkblog.
Photo of Josh Ritter courtesy of a random google image search for "josh ritter"