Josh Ritter’s early career was boosted by supporting The Frames on a tour in Ireland where he slowly built a reputation through word-of-mouth. As Ritter began to amass a following through these shows, former guitarist from The Frames, David Odlum, produced and played on ‘Hello Starling’, Ritter’s third release. It’s easy, warm, with an ethereal beauty in the melodies and lyricism. Every note is in just the right place and you know it as soon as you listen to it. Though straight-forward in his folk-rock approach, Ritter’s song-craft and smooth vocals elevate this album. At times stripped back to a stark acoustic beauty and elsewhere full of layered, glorious keys, the album is meticulously put together.
Ritter’s obvious talent is buoyed by excellent collaborators, including Odlum’s guitar and mandolin and Sam Kassirer’s piano, Wurlitzer and Hammond organ, which truly transform some of the songs. Also notable is Dave Hingerty’s percussion; his subtle rhythms and changes genuinely help to give identity to and differentiate each song.
The warm finger-picking and understated, almost-drowsy vocal of ‘Bright Smile’ make for an absorbing opening track. Its strength is in its structural directness and seeming simplicity. Crafted into a perfect musical shape or frame, the song guides us to the beauty of its melody and Ritter’s delivery. This is followed by the album’s highlight: the poetic grandeur of ‘Kathleen’. Beginning with a gentle strum, the song swells around Ritter’s lyricism: “All the other girls here are stars – you are the Northern Lights // they try to shine in through your curtains – you’re too close and too bright // they try and they try but everything that they do // is the ghost of a trace of a pale imitation of you.” Oh, to have written or spoken such impossibly romantic words. The music keeps lifting further before Ritter’s voice rises, almost breaking, full of weary love and truth: “I know you are waiting and I know that it is not for me.” ‘Kathleen’ lifts and falls and rolls on waves of swirling keys and Ritter is at his most-heartfelt, aching best.
Every song is immediately engaging and timeless. Every tune is a hummable delight that stays with you after listening. Every song showcases Ritter’s variety, while hanging together as a coherent whole. There’s the delicately ominous ‘Wings’, the folk-rocking brilliance of ‘Man Burning’, the simple, stark beauty of ‘Bone of Song’, the forceful, tuneful strum of ‘Snow is Gone’ and the swift finger-picking of ‘You Don’t Make It Easy Babe’, which invites obvious comparisons to Dylan.
An aspect of Ritter’s song-writing that stands up well against any of his influences is the sensitive, considered language, the sheer poetry of his work. Details and prosaic descriptions like: “I stole a mule from Anthony – I helped Anne up upon it,” draw us into his narratives but are balanced by wonderful imagery, such as: “The bone of song was a jawbone old and bruised.” The metaphors and abstractions sit naturally with the finer, storytelling details and, as a result, I return for the lyrical layers as well as the musical textures.
Despite comparisons with a host of acclaimed artists, from Dylan to Cohen, Josh Ritter was never the ‘new-‘ anyone else. He is a distinctive voice, who has pulled together a range of roots genres to create a near-perfect blend of something we might call Americana. He’s always been the ‘new Josh Ritter’. And this 2003 album was the first of his that sound-tracked my days and always the one I return to most. Here, Ritter’s voice was an intimate whisper, inviting us into personal stories told simply but with irresistible melodies. ‘Hello Starling’ was a classic as soon as it was written.
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