By Michael Henningsen
Lyrically, he's been compared to Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen. But as a songwriter, tracing 26-year-old Josh Ritter's perceived lineage is slightly more challenging. Anyone with the ability to read the lyric sheets accompanying his three existing records can visualize the boyishly handsome Ritter's face buried in books by Rimbaud and Rilke. But listening to his plaintive voice toy with hook laden melodies without ever actually playing the hand is drawn in some obscure way to Nick Drake and Beth Orton and, moreover, a comforting amalgam of Bob Dylan (pre-Victoria's Secret commercials) and Sweet Baby James-era James Taylor.
Like Damien Rice, Ritter is a bona fide star in Europe—particularly in Ireland—but there's something a touch more authentic about Ritter's songs and delivery than come across on records by Rice and most of his other contemporaries. Perhaps Ritter could be called Ryan Adams with a conscious and a little shame. Or, perhaps, he could be called the Great White Hope among singer-songwriters of the 21st century. Either way, Ritter is an artist with the same visceral focus as Slaid Cleaves and Kathleen Edwards, a craftsman of miraculously broad vision who's able to present it like the most unpretentious sage.
While he may not be a prophet of the religious stripe, the teachings Ritter has spread across a couple of mostly magnificent records resonate with the kind of reverent purity that separates solid folkish pop songs from masterpieces of folk-laced Americana.
Much of Ritter's output thus far comes across as gently as Neil Young's "Down By the River" or "Needle and the Damage Done," but also just as powerfully and poignantly—his message somewhat tempered by genius-level songwriting technique. A far cry from another flavor-of-the-month, Josh Ritter already stands among the icons of folk and Americana. Not bad for a twentysomething kid from Idaho.
Josh Ritter appears Saturday, April 10, at the Outpost Performance Space at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 general, $5 Outpost members and students. Call 268-0044 for more information.
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