In the Studio with Josh Ritter

Music Features Josh Ritter
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Q: What do you get when you cross one of the best lyricists of his generation with the producer responsible for the subtle texturing of Modest Mouse’s The Moon and Antarctica and Iron & Wine’s Our Endless Numbered Days?

A: An album that could very well be the best of 2006 if the first six tracks are any indication.

On Golden Age of Radio and Hello Starling, 27-year-old Idaho native Josh Ritter rose from a crowded field of dudes-with-guitars by crafting some of the most delicious lines in folk-rockdom (“All the other girls here are stars / You are the northern lights”) and delivering them in a cadence that carried as much gravitas as a young Springsteen. It was enough for the readers of Ireland’s main music rag, Hotpress, to vote him songwriter and male singer of the year, titles for which Ritter beat out a few other little-known names like Bob Dylan, Chris Martin and Thom Yorke. But if there was a flaw to 2003’s Starling, it was that while peers Joseph Arthur, Conor Oberst, Dave Bazan and even Sam Beam were experimenting with secret sauces in the studio, Ritter continued cooking with a recipe that’s been passed around for the last four decades.

Enter knob-twiddler Brian Deck and you have one of the young century’s heftiest batch of songs, buoyed by the blips and bleeps that transformed his Chicago blues-rock outfit Red Red Meat into folktronica pioneers Califone. With Deck halfway through mastering Ritter’s first album for V2, due next January, Paste visited the songsmith and his producer at Clava Studios in Chicago.

On songs like “Peter and the Dragon,” “Best of the Best” and “Good Man,” Deck’s stamp is instantly evident in the subtle wash of keys, shimmering Hammond and synthetic buzzes and whirls. But finger-picked guitar and mandolin provide a folky balance. “Girl in the War” sets the tone for an album focused on the failings of religion and religiosity. Ritter shakes his guitar at the heavens, singing, “the keys to the kingdom got locked inside the kingdom / And the angels fly around in there but we can’t see them / I’ve got a girl in the war, Paul, I know they can hear me yell / If they can’t find a way to help her they can go to hell.”

The AM rock stations of the ’70s that might’ve played “Lillian”—with its “la-diddy-da” chorus—were well before Ritter’s time. But, Deck chimes in, not before his producer’s time. Sam Kassirer attacks the piano’s high register, and Wurlitzer gives the song its shaggy, rock vibe.

The last song I hear is “Idaho.” And on this haunting song about his home state, a quiet, rhythmic guitar plucking is the only accompaniment Ritter needs.