Josh Ritter Got Divorced.
Unassumingly, in the second biggest newspaper in Boston, in the middle of an article about a series of concerts called “the Valentines Day Massacre,” referring to his marriage to Dawn Landes, answering a question which innocently asked about their writing practices, “we’ve actually decided to split, which is hard, but is going to be better in the end.” Old level-headed Josh. He had a child with Dawn Ritter, had lived with her, has been married, but it “is going to be better in the end.” The interview went on from there.
I saw Ritter on that tour. Terminal Five, the cologne gunked bottle service wasteland of midtown west, the venue that seems to grow a foot bigger and a modicum less interesting every time someone says how much they hate it. He played joyously, seeming as OK as the quote in the magazine suggested. Played “Kathleen,” which I can only imagine was tough for him. You know, everyone’s got their own way of coping, I know. But after The Beast in its Tracks, all the OK feels malingering, and it’s all bullshit, and I don’t know why he’s doing it.
Funny story about a breakup 1: __________________________________________________________ New Jersey Transit ___________________________________________ sobbing in Newark Penn Station!!!!
Normally, Josh Ritter stays distant, smart, creative. It’s his skill as a writer and the depth of his imagination which enable him to write a song like “The Temptation of Adam.” The song is a story about the post-apocalypse, an engagement with our military industrial complex (what’s left after everything else? A giant missile with an american flag painted on it), and a bunch of words that will make you think about love, in the way a good love song does. It is all of these things, but it is not about Josh Ritter.
Ritter has another song, “Folk Bloodbath” where Stagger Lee acts as cupid, and another about atoms, the big bang and planetary rotations which is actually about the merging of two lives. All of these are love songs in one way or another. Josh Ritter was in all likelihood in love when he wrote them, but these songs, you will know without working too hard, are not about Josh Ritter. They are full of genuine sentiment, but they are fictions, and it takes a good songwriter to do that, let me tell you.
In contrast, Josh Ritter’s newest album finds him treading pretty gunky, stagnant lyrical water. He compares his broken heart to “fallen debris” (“Hopeful”), refers to his ex as a ghost on at two songs (“A New Lover,” “Joy To You, Baby,”), and uses phrases like “little white lies.” And then there are lines which make me very uncomfortable.
These days I’m feelin’ better about the man that I am
There’s some things I can change and there’s others I can’t
I met someone new now I know I deserve
I never met someone who loves the world more than her
She has been through her own share of hard times as well
And she has learned how to tear out the heaven from hell
Most nights I’m alright still all rocks roll down hill
These lines from “Hopeful” don’t feel like lines from a song. They feel like the kind of speech someone gives when they drunk-corner you at a party, the kind of things they repeat to themselves a few times so they can make the inflections convincing. Yet it all feels like bad acting and it’s all phony and no one is buying it. There are other examples of lyrics as egregiously false as this one, but what’s the point in kicking a horse when its heartbroken as shit.
Now, arguably, such moments are meta. Maybe these songs were written when Ritter really was feeling better, when his mind was clear and he was back to living an uninterrupted life, and he was trying to recreate the feeling of lying about how OK you are. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on. The problems, then, with The Beast in its Tracks are twofold.
Problem One. It came too soon. Despite what Ritter claims in interviews, or what the reviews say, many songs on The Beast in its Tracks are doing a bad job of what they’re aiming for- trying to tackle the pain of break-up in Ritter’s usual removed, literate tone. There’s too much anger and hurt for that tone to work, and that because Ritter doesn’t seem to have processed his emotions as much as he claims he has.
Problem Two. Problem two is that, because The Beast in its Tracks came too soon, a fair amount of it isn’t very good. Which is shocking, coming from such a consistently satisfying and original songwriter like Ritter. Well, I mean, it’s shocking and it’s not. The crazy thing about the end of longterm relationships is that there is a period that feels like mourning. If that sounds melodramatic, well, of course it is, but it’s also about as accurate a description as your likely to find. And, probably, any art you make relating to the deceased relationship during that mourning period is going to be shit, it is going to be too raw, too hurt, too pained to be any good or provoke anything except cringing from an audience. You’re in a weird period where you’re writing explicitly to someone you’re no longer speaking with.
He may have a new lover, as he says over and over, and over, and over on this new album, but the songs on The Beast in its Tracks are not over Dawn Landes.
There are no funny stories about breakups. Arguably, there are no stories, no narratives to breakups. Just hurt that has no timeframe.
So did this album have to come out at all? I’ve written a hell of a lot of breakup poetry myself, but most of it stays in the documents folder. I can understand why Ritter wrote these songs and how they might have helped him. I can understand how recording them might have seemed like a nobel experiment and might have actually proven to be cathartic. But why share them? Why did Ritter feel the need to share these songs written so entirely for Dawn Landes, who will never listen to them.
Well, maybe because of “Appleblossom Rag.” It’s the most devastating and the best thing on the album. It starts with a recording of a female voice talking, a voice I’m imagining to be Landes. The song, struggles to hold itself together as it also struggles to cover up that recording. It’s a devastating and openly wounded- no attempts at saying things are fine, no “I’ve got a new lover.” Just a really sad, really deflated, really beautiful folksong. No harumphing drums, in fact nothing breaking the quiet.
And that’s not the only moment on the album that reminds me of what I love about Josh Ritter. In the gothic, wonderful, wordy “Nightmares,” Ritter mutters
I know where the nightmares sleep
On what fodder do they feed
I’d been awake so long by then
They thought that I was one of them.
And “Joy To You Baby” has the excellent line “If I’d never had met you/You couldn’t have gone/But then I couldn’t have met you”. Even though the rest of the verse dulls the intensity of those lines, I’m going to let him have that one, too.
Elsewhere in “Joy to You Baby,” Ritter sings to Landes, “Joy to you baby, wherever you sleep,” but that line tells how far he has to go before he’s as ok as he’s projecting on large swaths of this album. When you’re doing ok, really ok, you know exactly where the person sleeps. You’ve refriended them on facebook or stopped impulsively going to their still-unfreinded profile. You’ve seen them snuggled into the neck of someone new or can imagine as much without all the nausea. You know where they’re sleeping and you realize, knowing this, that you’re not crushed by the thought anymore. Maybe by then you’ve met someone new who would never qualify as a rebound. Maybe you haven’t- that’s not a requirement for feeling better. But what’s happened is the person who you used to love has gone from being insidious, from invading every thought and every vision, to being cataloged away. Despite what it will tell you, The Beast in its Tracks is a record of what come before that.
Also, have you heard of Young Fathers? I will write more about them soon, but for now, listen to Young Fathers.
Verbatim from the last two years: Everyone can do year end blurbs. Blurbs are, frankly, dime a dozen, and quite honestly, who needs ‘em- you can listen to the songs and get all the stuff. Here’s some writing about some music that I loved this year.
Tyvek- Nothing Fits
Tyvek’s first album cover features Play Doh-cast versions of the band members. If they had followed along with the motif, this album would have them made of Lincoln Logs. Lincoln Logs, impractical and monochromatic, were about as basic as toys got. Theoretically, if you have a pocket knife a free afternoon, you could make a dozen for your fancy. And Nothing Fits its about as basic as rock and roll get. It is shouted vocals, two guitar tracks (the word “interplay” is for suckers like Dream Theater. Don’t think of “guitar interplay.”) drum beats that do absolutely nothing but occasionally keep time, and, probably, some bass you could make out if you tried, etched onto plastic tape and then transferred to CD. So here’s how to judge this one: After you’ve heard the two below songs, you’ve heard the entirety of Nothing Fits. Interested?
Shrag- Life! Death! Prizes!
MiniBoone- Big Changes
You can play it two ways:
You can play it cool. Knot the double windsor on a dress shirt that cost so much money, it must be a costume. Find a rooftop bar, say to those around you “I’ve never seen the city from this angle” (though the people you say it to will think you are being sarcastic, you do not have to give any further indication that you are not.). Shower the night before, so your hair looks mussed. Own some things that are stainless steel or reclaimed wood. Dance a lot, and say you just quit, but thanks. Spend a lot of the night quietly thinking up the most clever, cutting, stupendous thing to say, and say it just as you’re putting your coat on, and know that everyone in the room will remember your name. It’s a good way to do it; you’re having fun, for real.
You can not. You can spit cliches like they were mucus and wear the mittens that a girlfriend knitted for your first midwestern winter at your liberal arts college. (She tried to spell out your whole name, but only got as far as “Br”). You can love as full and as raw as a small mammal shaking its life out on frozen concrete. You can own up to bad poetry, send gobs of text messages, write letters because you love the feeling of physical contact. You can wear your grandfather’s army jacket over your sister’s girl scout vest, and you can spend all day under the blanket sometimes if the weather seems to heavy. It’s a good way to do it, too.
Coltrane Motion- Hello Ambition!
In contrast to the new Four Tet album, Hello Ambition! is based squarely in our lives of no money, no job, some hope. These are songs for long-fought-for Friday nights and Sunday mornings where we try to put blinders on and forget what’s next. These are dance songs that are aggravated and wistful in equal doses. These songs emanate youth, with all of it melodrama and fierce love, both in the expertly crafted lyrics and the fuzz-bound music which splits the difference between bombastic beats and guitar that wraps around the sinews. I don’t think the group would mind me tossing out a cliché to describe Hello Ambition!, especially because it is, at a base level, incredibly accurate: Are you between 21 and 26, living in a city, scraping by for now, waiting and maybe in the back of your throat a bit worried? This is the soundtrack of your life.
Four Tet- There Is Love In You
What’s unbelievable to me is that There Is Love In You was played at some of the biggest clubs in London. Four Tet has always electronic music for people who press their earbuds tight against their inner ear and walk around empty city neighborhoods, not for people pressed against one another at a crowded club. And, to me, remarkably enough for an album which most critics, and even it’s creator seems to see as “Dance Music,” I hear almost the oipposite: something really spiritual. Tracks like “Circling” and “Angel Echo” do not build to dance hall peaks. They hover just above a listeners ears, the way light sometimes plays tricks on you. There Is Love In You does not have more than two or three discernible words on it, and the album feels cyclical- it’s first and last tracks begin with the same lonely, muffled kick drum. There are times when I found myself lost in this album, unsure when tracks ended or began, unsure of whether I had heard that melody before or not. That ethereal trance is what makes There Is Love in You such a compelling album, whether you can dance to it or not.
Josh Ritter- So Runs The World Away
This is not how the singer songwriter story goes. The singer songwriter strums and writes love songs and one political song per album, which is actually just a love song from a soldier to a guy (or girl) back home. The singer songwriter is supposed to be thankful for every moment they still have their record deal and not mind too much if you don’t remember their name or confuse them with Josh Rouse. The singer songwriter is not supposed to write transcendental, near 8-minute epics about arctic exploration, nor are their love songs supposed to be written from the POV of a reanimated mummy or a celestial body in an irregular orbit. The singer-songwriter is supposed to be derivative, but he is not supposed to be reverent and revisionary of the cannon, bring Stagger Lee and Louis Collins out of the textbooks and have them run around the street as though it hadn’t been 90 years since they last got to do that. The singer songwriter is supposed to be subtle and guitar based, not pounding, not sly, not loud. The singer songwriter could learn an awful lot from Josh Ritter. If he keeps making ’em as good as So Runs The World Away, he’ll keep that terrible label as far away as he likes.
Miles Kurosky- The Desert of Shallow Effects
The worst part of finger painting for young Miles Kurosky was waiting for the paint to dry. He was never the most patient painter as he distributed his colors on his nature scenes, and so the blue eyes of the rabbit on top of the yellow starlight on top of the greasy-gray grass came out the same way that the red of the Robin layered on the taupe of the dust road did: as brown. The whole thing was brown smudges next to brown streaks next to brown dots. Sure, there were hints of the fuchsia and egg-shell and flag-blue, but mostly it was brown. His teacher that year was almost old enough to fit into the schoolmarm image, but had smoked for too long to have the voice down. The one thing Miles remembers is her chair-scrape of a voice telling him “let the colors sit, let them take their place before you put the next one on.” The Desert of Shallow Effects is the sound of Miles Kurosky taking his teacher’s advice.
Wye Oak- My Neighbor/My Creator
Janelle Monae- The ArchAndroid
There is something to be said for hugging close to brevity like a safety blanket. My Neighbor/My Creator tunnels beneath oceans and traverses 20,000 foot peaks. It loves you enough to whisk you away from a world whose unfamiliarity is killing you, and it hates you enough to force one of the slowest, most calculated tell offs down your throat. It is fast and slow and everywhere in between. It is rushing and also solemn and then giddy, and then utterly lost. And, as far as I can discern from the lyrics, it is a complete retelling of the Garden of Eden story. It is the most miraculous piece of music this year, and it is 5 tracks- 17 minutes total.
There is also something to be said for shredding brevity like private documents and never looking at it again. The ArchAndroid is eighteen tracks, two interludes, two songs that sound like they were recorded in a gilded dance hall in the fifties, one that sounds like, if released in the late eighties might’ve single-handedly killed the careers of Cyndie Lauper and Madonna, because this and only this, is how the synthy-slow ballad should be done. There’s a bad trip stuck in there, and another one that manages to make you ignore how terrible and irritating Of Montreal are, despite their attempt to steal the show from Monae. There’s something here built for an opera hall. There’s a few made to echo off of dance floors, and a few built for hospital ERs. This in an album made from two complete suites, overtures and all. This is 70 minutes of sprinting. No one is supposed to be able to make it that far. Monae does.
The New Pornographers- Together
Oh New Pornographers, I had given up hope. I was lukewarm about Twin Cinema and didn’t even bother with Challengers. Your live performances were among the worst of any band I had ever seen, including having the gall at pitchfork a few years back to cover “We Will Rock You,” mid-way through your crappy set. Lest to say, you did not rock me. I bought Together because I had extra downloads left on emusic, I will confess. And then, holy shit, you release your catchiest, spunkiest, most fun, and best album yet. I won’t pretend to know what process makes a track like “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk,” coalesce: the perfect meeting of Neko Case’s immediate, 5th gear vocals, about eighty pounds of hands clapping hands, and a melody that bounces and pogos like the punk song it isn’t. Together feels joyous, and, as its title suggests, more collaborative than past releases. An album this delightful only comes along rarely, yet it seems like this was the one a group like The New Pornographers were always meant to make.
Superchunk- Majesty Shredding
People like to think that there is joy in going home after time away and seeing nothing has changed. These people have never actually done this. There is something desperate-seeming about things, people, places who seem identical after years have gone by. The cries that Majesty Shredding picks up just where Superchunk left off with their last full length, Here’s To Shutting Up, released nine years ago, worried me. But Majesty Shredding is not just a continuation of the Superchunk we knew and loved from the past. There are similarities between this album and the group’s past work, Mac’s summer southern vocals, Jon Wurster’s drip-drop-pounding drums, choruses as big as state fairs. But there are very important differences from old Superchunk. On Majesty Shredding the band sounds better than ever, both in terms of skills and production, and just as evidently, they also sound older. They’re writing just as much in the second person as the first now, as if they only know how to write about a few life lessons, but they’re smart enough to realize that the kids need them more than they do. The tenderness that holds these songs together does not diminish their giddy energy. This is eleven firecrackers packaged together in a shoebox wrapped carefully with a handmade bow.
Field Music- Field Music (Measure)
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists- The Brutalist Bricks
Well, maybe Marx is right. By all capitalist logic, my two favorite albums of the year should not exist. Neither Field Music nor Ted Leo and the Pharmacists are, financially, successful groups. Leo has, on his own website, talked candidly about declining album sales, and how hard it is to keep up the momentum he has maintained for 20 years at this point when he’s barely breaking even. Field Music, once a buzz band in the UK, broke up two years ago, seemingly to let that same buzz fade away, and returned this year with an album they had to have known was not going to sell well, a sprawling double-LP. And yet. And yet. Both of these albums do exist, and, at least to this music listener, provide a perfect rejoinder to all those tired arguments about art versus commerce. The Brutalist Bricks and Field Music (Measure) were not made to make money; they were made because they are great pieces of art. Outside of this, the albums could not be more different however.
I’ve already discussed how much hope and persistence there is on The Brutalist Bricks, but I want to say it again, with a bit more context. Ted Leo had always been an anomaly to me; a sonic experimenter who knew the value of an immediate pop structure; a political songwriter whose lyrics wouldn’t give you a clue as to who he voted for in the last election. He knew the value of drums and bass, of drinking guiness at fake irish pubs in Jersey Suburbs, of sitting in an attic with an unplugged electric guitar, singing to dust-blanketed boxes. He release a whole series of albums which continually made me smile. And then, in 2007, he released one which did not. Leo’s previous album, Living With The Living, was a total letdown for me. Its politics were too blunt and one sided, its slow rock felt exhausted. I listened to it through probably two or three times, and haven’t picked it up after that. I skipped seeing him in concert, for fear he would play “A Bottle of Buckie” or “The World Stops Turning” and I would crush my own heart.
I somehow ended up getting The Brutalist Bricks on the day it came out, and, the more I listen to the album, the more I am happy that I did. This is exactly the kind of album one runs home from a record store clutching and almost scratches the record or skips the CD as they excitedly put it on. The energy that begin on phenomenal opener “The Might Sparrow” does not let up until equally phenomenal closer “Last Days.” The Pharmacists, Leo’s backing band, have the same kinetic energy as The Attractions, Elvis Costello’s backing band to who they are rightfully compared. Just as importantly, Leo’s lyrical mastery is on full marque view on every song on The Brutalist Bricks. Really, the best compliment I can pay the album is to that that The Brutalist Bricks is an album which will make listeners want to do good.
I fell in love with Field Music’s latest album in the opposite manner. I downloaded it on the day it came out, listened to the first few tracks, and gave up, for months. I even blogged, guilt-ridden and worried that I still hadn’t listened to all twenty of the album’s tracks long after it had been released. This was not the album I would have initially hoped that Field Music would make. The band’s first two full lengths were poppy and sharp, the sound of valedictorians who stuck around their hometown’s gymnasium putting together songs piece by piece. The drummer would come in last, after working the afternoon shift at a bookstore/bar and add his two cents and his two sticks. They were wonderful, self-contained, simultaneously small and epic.
Well, after two years apart, the band’s most recently album gets rid of the small. This is EPIC, big, difficult, challenging, gratifying, growing, screwing, stacking, tumbling music. And the craziest thing? It’s a concept album about how difficult it was for the band to record a new album. Just to give you a peek into what I mean:
The positively melancholy first track, “In The Mirror,” has one of the Brewis brothers (Peter or David, the core of the group, and I’m never quite sure who is providing lead vocals on which song) singing “I wish I could and make new rules/and love myself better.” before lamenting “we are hopeless and lost,” almost losing hope altogether as he sings “We’re close enough to stop.” The song chronicles the band’s hiatus- the time in between, stuck wondering if it all was even worth it, and the music is all howling guitars and ghoulish oohs and aahs.
The listener is immediately rocketed into “Them That Do Nothing,” an anthem for moving forward. Here, the rhythm skips ahead and the melody opens and closes like a revolving door. The song’s central tenet is “Them that do nothing/Make no mistakes.” This is a band who are willing to have the blemishes, as long they’re new blemishes.
After that, the listener is treated to the gloriously lackadaisical, rock-as-fuck, “Each Time Is A New Time.” As close to classic rock as the band has ever tried, this is their first new statement of this release: The old game wasn’t working; here’s something new. And the album proceeds through 17 more beautiful songs from there, each as unique as a key cut for a new lock.
I won’t tell you that Field Music (Measure) is a bowl of ice cream. It isn’t a Smirnoff Ice, or a 0-120 roller coaster. It is not an easy, front-loaded straightforward listen. But it is supremely rewarding. A band like field music have recreated their sounds and their basic aims in making music with every album. It is thrilling to see them change in such thoughtful, iconoclastic ways. I’m not hedging my bets on where they’ll go next.
Thanks for reading. More regular updates will return in 2011.
You build yourself a house.
It happens at some point in your late 20s that you’ve saved up enough money to either pay back college loans or buy some small property outside of Dallas, and that seems less reasonable but more productive, so you fake your own death and get down to Dallas in a surprisingly hot late November. You get a taxi from Dallas/Fort Worth to your empty lot at the end of street they were too lazy to make a cul-de-sac, and you sit down on the curb. “Shit,” you think “I should’ve bought some lumber.” Next day you walk down the road ’till you get to a strip mall where, in a pet shop, you post, next to the fliers for missing dogs and such, a notice that says, “help needed to build a house. Must supply own lumber, hammers, nails, caulk, and design plans.” You intend it as a joke, probably to be picked up by some indie kid looking for some found art to put on the back of the new issue of his zine. Four days later, you do get a call. “Hi, my name’s Josh” the voice on the other end says, and you immediately know, after those 4 words, that this is not a scam.
Josh arrives at your lot the next day in a blue Toyota Tundra and unloads some lumber. He asks you if you’ve ever built anything before, and he doesn’t laugh when you say “well, a bird house or two.” He says, “There’s a first time for everything.” By the end of that day, he has a frame put up, and when, at the end of that day, he realizes that neither of you built a foundation, he curses a bit under his breath, and say’s he’ll be back the next day. He doesn’t ask you where your sleeping that night, and you don’t want to tell him it’s going to be in a hole 50 feet away. The next day, he brings his shovel and starts digging. It goes from there, and the long and short is, Josh does a damn adequate job at building a house. He puts in plumbing, a sunken window, a winding staircase, all that stuff. After he’s done building, he asks whether you want it painted. By now, he’s bringing lunch for the two of you, and he says, in between bites of dry cornbread “do you know what colors you want to paint it?” That afternoon, he drives you to Menards and lets you pick out paint. The next day you sit down to paint; you start at one ends of the house and he starts at the other.
You’re most of the way done with your rooms when you walk in to see what he’s done, and suddenly it feels like you’ve just met Josh. That every moment up until now, the moment his dirty sneaker appeared from his truck, the way he struggled with the sink and almost dropped it before he asked for help, has been blown into nuclear bits, and that right now is the first moment that Josh is there. The way he holds the roller, it’s like he’s holding an ice cream cone by the very bottom, passing it from truck window to tiny eager hands, and he moves it as evenly as a zen master would. The walls you’ve painted look alright; they look painted. The walls he’s painted look clothed…no, they look blanketed…no, they look lit up. He makes you wonder whether anything actually existed beneath the paint before this morning. Of course, you know better, but the way he does it is so overwhelmingly seamless that you want to get swept up in the illusion.
Josh leaves, and it’s late and you two had just split a bottle of wine, one of those big cheap bottles they sell at the supermarket that’s either labeled “red” or “white,” and so you go upstairs to go to sleep. Very quickly, you doze off, and at 2:34 (you don’t have a clock, but somehow you know it is exactly 2:34), you wake up to nervous skittering in your kitchen. Your thoughts immediately go to mice, and you think of how tough it was to get rid of the two thumb sized rodents that lived in your hole-filled apartment in New York City. You groan and slowly walk downstairs with a hammer you found, unsure exactly what you’re going to do with it should you find two mice sitting on your floor. You walk into the threshold and see three giant red spiders staring at you with their 24 combined eyes. They don’t move and you don’t move. You swear these spiders are glowing. You start to wonder what kind of burial ground this house was built on. You start to wonder how you’ve gone so long in life without taking any course or reading any book that would help you identify poisonous spiders. You think back to pictures of Brown Recluse bites and Malaria and West Nile, but then you remember that’s mosquitoes. The spiders haven’t moved. You have the feeling they’re waiting for you to make the first move. You go back up stairs and try to go to sleep. You don’t see them the next day, but that night, you hear them again. This time you don’t go downstairs. It takes about two weeks, but on New Years Eve, you fall asleep early to the sound of skittering legs on fresh wood floor. You wonder, right before you doze off, if you will ever be able to sleep without the sound from this point forward.
Hey NYers, Field Music play the Bell House Thursday night with Wye Oak, and next week, Parts and Labor play the Brooklyn Bowl! For free!