14 May 2011

2010: Jonsi, Josh Ritter


Released April 6. 2010 (XL)

Short Notes: Sigur Ros frontman makes a pop record, mostly.

Lin: B+
A solo album essentially in name only, where the best moments are those that come closest to his main band. It's more accessible than Sigur Ros, probably, but accessibility was never their problem. There's still the majestic chord progressions and non-English singing, but the songs are shorter and generally less complex. It's real easy to say that if you're a fan of Sigur Ros, this is a worthwhile purchase, though it doesn't reach the level of Sigur's better albums. Indeed, this is a "throw it on and don't think about it too hard" album that doesn't require much active listening as many of the tracks blend together in one long drone-y atmospheric. The one track that stands out here is "Tornado," which has the pathos of the first Sigur Ros album.

Brandon: B-
Among the many terrible things I have to publicly admit in order to write for this blog, I must confess that I never enjoyed Sigur Ros. Most of my college friends and a number of my grad school friends absolutely loved them--bought rare releases, saw them in concert, described the rapturous experiences they had with the music. I just never felt it. And so in as much as this isn’t like Sigur Ros (and Lin’s right--Jonsi brings the pop here alongside the weird), I prefer it. The lead track and single, “Go Do,” is a piece of commercial-ready post-millennial dream-pop, its insistent happiness and upbeat attitude verging on The Polyphonic Spree. The rest is a little more eclectic--lots of blips and beeps and vocal manipulations alongside the soaring verses-as-choruses and cheery orchestration. It’s a little saccharine for me (even with the weirdness), but it has it’s charms. It sounds like something a Cirque de Soleil performance could be built around, if they were so inclined. I’m not sure if that’s an endorsement or not.

Josh Ritter
So Runs the World Away

Released May 4, 2010 (Pytheas)

Short Notes: Much-loved singer-songwriter mostly succeeds

Brandon: B-
Josh Ritter’s 2003 record Hello Starling is much beloved by the the indie singer-songwriter community. It’s a justifiable classic of the last decade in songcraft--wordy, clever, built less on hooks and more on long, intricate verses that tell simple stories with lots of memorable lines. His newest outing isn’t nearly as strong, although it has its rewards. Sonically, Ritter’s work is a lot more diverse now--more orchestration and a much more dynamic mix of tempos and sounds. When this plays to his strengths as a storyteller (“Folk Bloodbath”), his way with a slow crescendo (“Change of Time”), or he works out a relatively straightforward hook (“Lantern”), this works out. But too often, the music is too busy when the songs are least interesting (“The Remnant”), or his use of drone-y keyboards for atmospherics (something one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Richard Buckner, has done expertly) falls flat (“See How Man Was Made”).

Of our run of singer-songwriter albums, I like this rather less than the Joe Pug album, or even than the Ben Weaver or Doug Paisely albums--all of which are less Randy Newman, or even Freedy Johsnston or Ron Sexmith (read: less polished and literate) and more, well country. Ritter’s strengths are his quirks as a writer, but I think he works best musically when he plays it simple and straight.

Lin: B+
Even now, after I've spent such an inordinate amount of time learning about popular music, I can name only two and a half good musical acts from my home state of Idaho. So, I have a particular nostalgic love for Josh Ritter's music, even though someday I'll end up owning this shirt and didn't hear him until I left the state. (Nonetheless, Ritter's 2006 track "Idaho" always heightens any remaining homesickness.) Despite having some wickedly good tracks in his oeuvre -- Hello Starling's "Kathleen" is one of my all-time favorite songs -- Ritter's never made a front-to-back great album. That's not changed with So Runs The World Away, which follows a similar format to his previous work: fairly inconsistent but with a couple of pretty great tracks. The highlight is "Folk Bloodbath" a reworking/retelling of the Stagger Lee and Louis Collins fables. (There's some meta elements at work here, too, if you're familiar with the Mississippi John Hurt 'originals.') If you're already familiar with Ritter's work, this is a worthy pick-up. If not, there are better places to start (Hello Starling) or, better yet, get someone who knows to make you a mix.

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