“Bright Smile” // Josh Ritter // Hello Starling

I’m a sucker for opening tracks. I think in this entire week, there is only one album where I’m not looking at one of Josh’s openers, and even then it doesn’t mean that song sucks, it just means that I’d be writing a baby novel for every single song on that album. (A mild exaggeration, but I could talk about Josh’s music all day every day.)

One of the things that I’ve always loved about “Bright Smile” in particular is how Josh drops references into his songs so easily, without making it difficult for people to understand what’s going on. I once heard one of my friends describe Josh’s music as “music for smart people,” which might give the wrong impression: only smart people can understand while everyone else is inferior. Josh is well-read and knows a lot about so many different things, but he also doesn’t lord it over your head. You can listen and still have a lot of fun, even if you don’t catch all his references.

And here, in “Bright Smile,” we get Abelard in the third line (how many songs do you know that namedrop Abelard?) and Calamity Jane in the second verse. And yet none of this distracts or takes away from what this song is, which is a beautiful, gentle love song. “Just pin your heartbeat up against my heartbeat / and you’ll see how well we rhyme.” I’m not a romantic, but every time I hear that line, I smile like a ninny. It makes finding love sound like poetry, not even in a sappy way.

If this version is a little too gentle for you, check out this more rockin’ version released on the Live at the Iveagh Gardens DVD.

“Snow Is Gone” // Josh Ritter // Hello Starling

You know, I’ve never seen a man happier than Josh Ritter when he gets to play. I once went to a show where the opening band had a keyboardist that looked bored the entire time she stood up there, casually plonking on the keys as if she had nothing better to do. I was surprisingly upset by this, if only because I love music. I’m not very good at playing it, but I dabble with what I can. And you know what? If I could do whatever I loved every night, I’d be wildly excited. It would be hard for me to stop smiling, even on a bad day.

Josh is exactly like that. He’s his happiest when he’s singing, and you can hear the smile in his voice. Whenever you go to one of his live shows, you come out feeling like you can do anything, his happiness is so infectious. And it’s so obvious in a song such as “Snow Is Gone” that singing’s exactly what he loves to do: “I’m singing for the love of it, have mercy on the man who sings to be adored.” 

I’ve always loved this song because, for me, it captures all the feelings that come along as spring pops up: everything’s blooming in green and white and pink, birds are singing, and some ferocious happiness grips you as you walk down the pavement on a day so mild that you only need a light jacket. It’s enough to make you want to burst into song yourself. Keep this song in your back pocket for happy days to make them even happier, or for sad days when you need cheering up; Josh’s happiness will rub off on you and, even if you don’t feel like singing your heart out, you’ll still feel a little better. I promise.

Track

Wings

Artist

Josh Ritter

Album

Hello Starling

“Wings” // Josh Ritter // Hello Starling

This song is a weird one. It’s a great story of a journey in the Pacific Northwest (evidently these towns are scattered in Idaho, Montana, and the like) but, honestly, I don’t think that the story is the most interesting part of this song. I’ve never quite understood it, to be totally honest.

What I love about this one is both the sense of history and also the strangeness it evokes. Blasting out tunnels for trains; this ain’t stuff that’s happening now, this has got to be taking place in the past. It’s not like we get a date, but there are hints of trade at the marketplace; combined with building railroads, this has always struck me as another nineteenth-century song. The music is so atmospheric, too; there’s something a little creepy about it, but creepy in a good way. It’s the kind of quiet that makes you shut up and listen because you know something amazing is going to happen.

When Anne sees that “underneath their jackets she saw wings,” I believe her. Angels are crawling around this area of the world, and that’s both strange and commonplace—nobody’s saying, “wow, what the hell’s going on here?” Josh is a master of adding a touch of magical realism/fantasy to his stories, which I love. I think more people need to do that.

“Kathleen” // Josh Ritter // Hello Starling

Weirdly enough, Josh has a huge fan base in Ireland. For all that he is (un)known in the US, his Irish tours sell out quickly and two of his live CDs—from Vicar Street and the Iveagh Gardens—were recorded there. And “Kathleen” always gets a rousing reception.

Let’s face it, though, “Kathleen” is one of his better known songs and I flip out every time he plays it live. It starts with one of the most beautiful comparisons I’ve ever heard: “All the other girls here are stars, you are the northern lights.” I have a t-shirt with that stamped on it. I made a Halloween costume once to be the Northern Lights so I could go around quoting that. Normally girls are stars, the moon, the earth—to say that everyone else is a star but this girl is so much bigger just sweeps you away. (I think that also points to how equal-opportunity’d Josh is; every girl is a star! No girl in this scenario is ugly!)

I heard once that this song was written about his prom night, where there weren’t enough girls in the town to go around, so he had to share a date with a friend; his friend got her for the first half of the evening, and Josh got to take her home. There’s a lot of young love in here that could easily become trite and burdensome, but hell if there ain’t some (a) good lines in here and (b) a sweeping melody that grabs you and refuses to let go, no matter what age you are. It’s also a lot of fun to belt out the last stanza in a crowd.:“AND THE NEXT TIME WE MEET’S A NEW KINDA HELLO / BOTH OUR HEARTS HAVE A SECRET ONLY BOTH OF US KNOW / ‘BOUT THE NIGHT! THAT I! DROVE YOU BACK HOOOOOOME, KATHLEEN!” You end up howling like a wolf. (There’s more where that came from, too…)

It’s a song to end shows with that makes you leave the concert hall feeling like you also have a secret that you know about: Josh performed “Kathleen” and he was so smiley and happy and my heart soared. It’s intensely personal, even though you just shared that moment with hundreds of others, and that’s what makes me smile.

Hello Starling

I think Hello Starling is the first album where Josh really, truly finds his voice as a singer/songwriter. Don’t get me wrong, I love Golden Age of Radio, but there is something more cohesive about this album; it feels a lot more well-balanced, instrumentally, than “here is one straight-up guitar tune after another.” There’s a little more room to experiment with sound on this album, although it’s nowhere near as adventurous as, say, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. (We’ll get to that on Thursday.)

I tend to think the individual tracks on Hello Starling are much stronger than its predecessor. I can skip about half the songs on Golden Age of Radio and still feel okay; sometimes I just can’t handle all that guitar. But pretty much every song on Hello Starling is solid if not stellar, with Josh’s songwriting having matured some. (If you thought the stuff I showed you yesterday was good, wait until you see what I have in store for you today.) For me, this is an album that is meant to be listened to as an album, a trend that continues with the rest of Josh’s music: taken all together, it ends up being stronger than its individual parts.

“Come and Find Me” // Josh Ritter // Golden Age of Radio

In the liner notes to the deluxe version of Golden Age of Radio that I would have on me if someone hadn’t borrowed my CD years ago and never given it back, Cameron Crowe talked about how his film crew used to listen to “Come and Find Me” on the set of Elizabethtown. I live in Kentucky, and spoiler alert: much of Elizabethtown wasn’t actually filmed in said city.

Having said that, though, this is such a Kentucky song for me, or at least a song that has to be fully experienced outdoors. Probably in a field. It’s always sounded to me like an extended game of hide-and-seek with someone you love and everything is made of flowers and it’s gorgeous. The sun shines down on you, hot, and still there’s a slight breeze, stirring the tall grass. There is such a comfort in this song, a feeling of coming home, that I’ve always felt while listening to it.

And the lyrics! So beautiful! “We walked up in the fields alone / and the silence fell just like a stone / that got lost in the wild blue and the gravel grey.” This is a line that could have easily turned into cliché (silence falling like a stone) but the “wild blue” and “gravel grey” of this line just make this line stand out for me. That’s Josh for you: taking things you expect and putting his own beautiful twist on them.

In addition to the video I’ve posted, I’ll also link you to a fun, superstar version. Josh performs “Come and Find Me”, but only after Rainn Wilson (yes, the guy from The Office) introduces Josh with a monologue filled with Ritter song titles and references. Maybe try watching it again at the end of the week and see if you find it any funnier. 

Track

Golden Age of Radio

Artist

Josh Ritter

Album

Golden Age Of Radio

“Golden Age of Radio” // Josh Ritter // Golden Age of Radio

This song is back from when Josh’s stuff was a little more overtly country—in fact, the original demo for this song was called “A Country Song,” and it’s basically Josh singing the song at a much faster tempo. There’s a twang there. And I think what this song does best is showcasing Josh’s eye for detail. He includes the stuff that can really make a song. You don’t know what country song they’re supposed to be singing, but it’s “soft and low”—can you hear that? A pretty girl in the passenger’s seat, fields whizzing past the windows, and a shyness from this girl who doesn’t entirely want to be heard, but still wants to sing anyway. Also, the line about the jonquil dress. I had to look up what the hell jonquil was after listening to this song a zillion times when I was eighteen; it’s like a brighter, smaller daffodil. I love the sound of that phrase, “jonquil dress,” too. It strikes me as insanely comforting.

“Me & Jiggs” // Josh Ritter // Golden Age of Radio

“Me & Jiggs” is the ultimate buddy song. It’s a song for being young, messing around, having fun, drinking beer on porches and playing guitar, and that weird feeling when you feel like everything is very strange but also okay. “We are all half crazy and all at least half alright,” Josh sings, and I think that’s a perfect way to sum up the strangeness that is your twenties. There’s some really nice imagery that sticks out to me as particularly Ritterian: “we play guitar to burn off the hours” is one. I like that phrasing a whole lot. It’s like the feeling you get as you sit around a campfire and you are surrounded by all your best friends but you’re also just shooting the breeze, waiting until it’s dark when you can get really rowdy.

Jiggs, was, evidently, one of Josh’s old dogs—a Jack Russell terrier that was eaten by coyotes.* I had never known that until now, and I’ve been listening to this song for four years or something. For some reason, that makes this simultaneously more cheerful and also somewhat sadder; I’m sorry Jiggs is gone from this world, but from this song, it sounds like he had a hell of a good life.

* According to a few strangers on the internet, Jiggs was also Glen Hansard’s nickname on tour, although this album came out before Josh toured with Glen, so… I don’t know. Take your pick.