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Josh Ritter 

The Animal Years (V2)

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On "Girl in the War," the magnificent opening number of his new album, Idaho singer-songwriter Jason Ritter immediately reveals his increased lyrical and musical self-confidence. The song succeeds on two levels, as a moving ode to a relationship and as a powerful antiwar hymn. It's one of several tunes that project an intensity comparable to Springsteen's. What takes this disc out of the Nebraska neighborhood is Modest Mouse producer Brian Deck's atmospheric arrangements. Deck weaves a variety of synthesized whirls and gurgles into Ritter's melodic folk-rock, enhancing the subtle sense of unease that flows through Ritter's work. Ritter, who graduated from Oberlin with a degree in American Studies, brings a literary approach to songwriting, using recurring references (Illinois, Laurel & Hardy, and Cairo are a few obvious examples) to loosely bind the songs. While tunes like the spare, haunting "Idaho," the rollicking "Lillian, Egypt," and the beguiling story-song "Best for the Best" all stand out, the album's centerpiece is "Thin Blue Flame." At nine minutes it's the longest song Ritter's ever written, but it doesn't seem lengthy. Like Dylan's stream-of-consciousness epics, "Thin Blue Flame" takes a hard look at the world today, soaring above political dogma into something poetically profound.

More by Michael Berick

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