Josh Ritter – The Animal Years

So even though me and iTunes have fallen out massively since it’s latest update, I still cannot deny the fact that it introduced me to Josh Ritter.  The epic Thin Blue Flame was a free single of the week that I first heard Ritter’s wandering voice and his engaging lyrics, which add layer upon layer to his excellent compositions.  I quickly downloaded the full album, The Animal Years and it pretty much instantly became one of my favourite album, and that’s without it containing my favourite Josh Ritter track, Kathleen.

The simple strumming guitar intro to Girl in the War gives a summery feel that is defied by the poignant sentiment of words.
Peter said to Paul / You know all those words we wrote / Are just the rules of the game / And the rules are the first to go
The drum and bass are a brilliant counter point to the guitar and the orchestration gradually builds as the lyrics paint an evocative lament of a man whose girl has been called away to war.
But I got a girl in the war Paul her eyes are like champagne / They sparkle bubble over and in the morning all you got in rain
It is a simple beautiful song which I never get bored of listening to.

Wolves kicks in with galloping piano and drums and Ritters vocal rides in over the top
The winter came / There was little left between us / skin and bones and love won’t make a meal / I found my eyes lifting over your shoulder / to the wolves at the edge of the field
In the words of a friend of mine, Ritter has a beautiful turn of phrase and wolves has an uplifting vocal, even though the lyrics are somewhat melancholy.  A quick look on and it clearly means different things to different people.
Sometimes in the frozen nights I go roaming in the bed you used to share with me / I wake in the field with the cold and the lonesome, the moons the only face I see

Wolves fades straight into the subdued organ of Monster Ballads, which is then sunk beneath it’s regimental drums while the piano and bass skip over the top with Ritter’s boxed in vocals.

Lillian, Egypt is probably the most evocative song on the whole album.  An old fashioned romp of true loves running away together.  The guitar speeds up with the drums and as the protagonist relives his tale, complete with a saloon style piano solo
I remember back in Illinois I found her / The lily of the valley / The lily of the West was a rose / The daughter of the biggest big town banker / He kept her like a princess / I stole her like the Fort Knox gold

Idaho is a stripped down confession, just the sparse strumming guitar and a ghostly vocal
I gave up a life of crime / gave it to a friend of mine

One More Mouth is one of my two favourite songs on the album.  A slow, soft ballad lead by an electric guitar that bounces slowly through the intro to the clear vocals.
You act like you don’t need nobody else / And you dance like you don’t need nobody else / And all the other moths need light to circle round / You just fly … around yourself
The slow looping guitar rolls under Ritter’s questioning vocal before the soft drum kicks in and the song, and you, winds down.
Honey why you gotta hide your face from me / Will I starve in this eclipse while you treat every hungry kiss / like one more mouth to feed

A piano led introduction, before a steam train drum beat with a soft guitar riding over the top, Good Man crept up on me to become the other favourite song on the album.  Another song where they lyrical imagery conjures up different meanings for different people, but for me, the break down in the middle is the best part of the song.
You’re not a good shot buy I’m worse / And there’s so much where we ain’t been yet / So swing up on this little horse / The only thing we’ll hit is sunset

Clocking in at just under ten minutes, Thin Blue Flame feels like a labour of love to listen, as if you’ll only reach the end if you’re a big big Ritter fan.  But it’s a brilliant song, the instruments lifting and dropping as the vocals preach over the top and the whole song builds and drops, the guitar, and then piano rising slowly, as Ritter’s voice urges them louder to a peak that drops just before it explodes, and then starts again, before a final melancholy verse takes the song to it’s rousing crescendo.
If God’s up there he’s in a cold dark room / The heavenly host are just the cold dark moons / He bent down and made the world in seven days / And ever since he’s been walking away

A haunting, simple, piano love song finishes the album, with Ritter hoping he’s in time to save his lover
Under wide blue skies / There’s a place to lie / For me and Evelyn to hide tonight / I’ll try my best to make a go / but I’m not sure and  I don’t know / Oh Chariots / If you’re out there please swing low

The other tracks, In the Dark, an almost traditional ballad and Best of the Best, a stripped bare reminiscence of experience, are also good, and the whole album is a perfect example of Ritter’s sheer talent for crafting a beautiful song with wonderful evocative lyrics that conjure imagery in front of your eyes.


U2 – Achtung Baby

In tandem with my life in music, I want to write about my favourite albums. I was going to do my top  5, but when I started writing down what I wanted to include it soon escalated, so I’ll just do them as and when.  I’m going to try to stick to actual albums, rather than best of’s or compilations.  And although they won’t be in any particular order, these first few are definitely clear favourites 🙂

From the faint ticking of the train approaching in the distance to the crash of the guitar, Achtung Baby roared into my life. I got it the same Christmas as I got a Super Nintendo with Super Mario Brothers, and now the two are inextricably linked. U2 were my soundtrack to 99 levels of Super Mario World.

It seems a pretty divisive album to fans, one of my lecturers at college said she didn’t like it or anything after it. It seemed to change direction for the band, less anthemic but more bombastic. For me it’s their best album, and is complimented perfectly by the Zoo TV tour (which I had an opportunity to see but had to turn down, one of the few regrets of my life), the Zooropa album and the brilliant book U2 at the end of the world, by Bill Flanagan.
The gestation was in Berlin, U2 were there when the wall came down, and in fact the band themselves were wondering whether they had anything left to give, whether to jack it all in.

First of all I loved Zoo Station, Mysterious Ways, So Cruel and Tryin’ To Thow Your Arms Around the World. I liked One some times but not at others, Until The End Of The World was the same, I loved the lyrics and the sentiment, but couldn’t get into the song as a whole. Then Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses crept up and the uplifting Ultraviolet (Light My Way) became my favourite. Acrobat was the only track I could never get into fully, but it doesn’t detract from the album as a whole.

Zoo Station approaches, you can hear it as the instruments join in until the loud guitar rolls the track out of the tunnel and into the air, loud and moving straight into your ears.
I’m ready / I’m ready for the laughing gas / I’m ready / Ready for what’s next
Bono is ready, the band are ready, regrouped, energised.  The slightly distorted vocals sounding electronic and robotic before the chorus, where the guitar and drums sound like a thundering, rattling train.

Even Better Than The Real Thing powers in from the start, all guitar before another train like drum beat rolls in and Bono’s voice, clear and deep rides in over the top.  The remix by Paul Oakenfold, who toured with them, was just as popular as the album version.

After the loud, rocking opening the third track slows down. It is anthemic in it’s sound and lyrics and is ultimately, the song that kept the band together.  Frustrated with their progress on the new album and wondering if they should stop while they were at the top, The Edge played the middle eight from another song, Ultraviolet, over and over, the others stepped in before Bono stepped up to the mic and the lyrics poured forth.
Did I ask too much? / More than a lot? / You gave me nothing / Now it’s all I got
We’re one, but we’re not the same / we get to carry each other / carry each other / One

Next is a song that for some reason reminds me of waves rolling over a beach (maybe it was the video?).  The drums set a running pace while the guitars stretch out and Bono’s voice blows over the top. Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses is the story of that wild person you want but is to free spirited to be caught and held down.
Well you lied to me / cos I asked you to / baby, can we still be friends?
Whos’ Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses? / Who’s gonna drown in your blue sea / Who’s gonna ride your wild horses / Who’s gonna fall at the foot of thee

I could pretty much write down all the lyrics to So Cruel.  For a long time my favourite track on the whole album
We’re cut adrift / but still floating / I’m only hanging/to watch you go down, my love
I gave you everything you ever wanted / It wasn’t what you wanted
From the slipping drums to the bitter sweet piano and Bono’s voice crying out a lament, the song resonated with me more than the rest
Personal experience?  Maybe, but I loved the song long before she was so cruel
Between the horses of Love and Lust / We are trampled, underfoot

Just behind the melancholy So Cruel was Mysterious Ways.  One of the best guitar openings that sounded like nothing else I had heard.  The guitar crashing in for the chorus then disappearing during the verse as Bono sings over a rolling percussive beat.
Jonny take a walk, with your sister the moon / Let her pale light in, to fill up your room / You’ve been living underground, eating from a can / You’ve been running away, from what you don’t understand / Love

After So Cruel, my favourite for a long time was Trying To Throw Your Arms Around The World.  To me a song all about hangovers but the music is so quiet, soft drums and a deep bass line with ethereal guitars ringing in, you’ve gone so far, and for so long, maybe it’s time to come back.
Sunrise like a nosebleed / Your head hurts and you can’t breathe / You’ve been trying to throw your arms, around the world
And of course it contains the immortal line And a woman needs a man, like a fish needs a bicycle

I don’t know what it was about Ultraviolet (Light My Way) that made it grow on me.  I think Ultimately I found it incredibly uplifting.
Oh sugar don’t you cry / Oh child wipe the tears from your eye / You know I need you to be strong / When the days as dark, as the night is long / Feel like trash, you make me feel clean / I’m in the black, can’t see or be seen
The choral beginning just dying out before the drums kick off the springing guitar and even the more down beat lyrics can’t stop the song from soaring.

Rounding up the album are the haunting and tragic Love is Blindness and The Fly, A great rock track that knocked Bryan Adams’s Everything I do off the top of the UK charts after a record breaking sixteen weeks.
So it’s my favourite album still, I don’t like anything before or after as much, excepting maybe Zooropa, but they are linked, Zooropa being written while the band was touring Zoo TV.  Even after 22 years it still doesn’t sound or feel old, and it still conjures up Mario and Yoshi in my head when I hear it.