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Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2007, Part 18 (Ritter, Josh – Smith, Elliott)

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Josh Ritter – The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter

Three’s Company demonstrates how variations on a theme can yield a multiplicity of entertaining scenarios. The juxtaposition of the post-free love titular trio and the social expectations espoused by Mr. Roper’s anti-polyamory rental restriction (a conservative policy that, puzzlingly, allows for homosexual exemptions) provide a fertile backdrop for the many, just-barely-differentiated scenarios of neo-Shakespearean mistaken identity, sexual confusion, and gay panic. When the dynamic changed ever so slightly with the introduction of Don Knotts as …

Oh, Josh Ritter.

Thankfully, Ritter, much like the creators and stars of Three’s Company, understands the value of variations on a theme. The strength of The Historical Conquests of… derives not from its originality, but from its familiarity. These songs sound like you’ve heard them before upon first listen, but in a personalized way that encourages further replays. While it’s entirely coincidental that his album comes directly after Rilo Kiley’s in the marathon, they similarly mine territory staked out by other artists and claim it as their own, never sticking with any style too long to get boring.

“To the Dogs or Whoever” opens the album in a (very) Dylan-like 2/4 cascade of cultural references from Joan of Arc to Casey Jones on a bed of 60s organ. As if to immediately throw off those who might take him as a throwback, he follows this with “Mind’s Eye,” which could practically pass for recent Spoon (this similarity later recurs on “Rumors”). Most of all, though, Ritter is just another in a long string of hard-to-classify singer-songwriters who tackle rock, folk, and pop (and even a little country) without quite fitting on the radio and whose traditionalism tends to throw off a lot of the more indie-fixated publications. It’s a shame, because the lyricism and simplicity of songs like “The Temptation of Adam” deserve better than World Cafe among similar guys who don’t do it as well, and tuneful rock tracks like “The Right Moves” and “Real Long Distance” could make it on the radio in a more just universe. It’s an easy album to overlook, but the Historical Conquests of… is one of the quiet surprises (that’s not always so quiet) of 2007. It’s mellow and familiar, yet varied enough for Jack, Chrissy, Janet, Cindy, Terri, Larry, Mr. Furley, and even the Ropers to find something they like.

Saturday Looks Good to Me – Fill Up the Room

If I wrote a full review for Fill Up the Room, it would mostly be me bullshitting and going off-topic. I’ve listened to this all the way through only a couple times, and it only really made an impression on the last one – it’s a good one, overall. If I hadn’t heard Oh, Inverted World, it would probably blow me away a lot more. Not to say that these guys are intentionally ripping off the Shins at all, but there are some common call-backs to 60s motifs, and a similar balance of acoustic guitars and a lo-fi aesthetic that bring them to mind for me. That’s kind of a good thing, since the Shins aren’t quite what they used to be.

The Shins – Wincing the Night Away

Like Modest Mouse, Ted Leo, John Vanderslice, and a number of others, the Shins suffered this year mostly by comparison to previous work. Oh, Inverted World, their debut that didn’t just offer songs, but an entire atmosphere that just happened to be filled with perfect pop, was my soundtrack for a summer. Chutes Too Narrow didn’t quite live up to that level, but it’s impossible to deny as a solid sophomore attempt.

I want to admire James Mercer for attempting to broaden his band’s sound on Wincing by using drum machines (“Sea Legs”), spacier arrangements (“Black Wave”), and cleaner production, but the songs that work best are those that stick most to formula. “Phantom Limb,” which sounds like a bulked-up child of “New Slang,” is one of the standouts, and “Turn On Me” has a chiming “Then He Kissed Me” opening coupled with a chorus and lyrics that stand with the best of the band’s early work. I hate to argue for a band to tread water, but they’re so good at what they do with this style, that it’s hard not to be disappointed when they stretch into areas that they don’t handle as well.

There’s still more good than bad here, but it’s unfortunate that a lot of new Shins fans seem to be coming on board for what’s probably their weakest effort to date.

Elliott Smith – New Moon

Now that we’re in the post-Elliott Smith years, some have lost perspective on this gifted, troubled songwriter. While he was capable of genius, he was also just a guy, and this collection bears this out. New Moon is a collection of songs recorded for his self-titled album and what I consider to be the beginning of his greatest period, Either/Or. It should take nothing away from either album when I say that New Moon falls pretty short of brilliant. In fact, it’s a little repetitive. His stylistic tics are well in place, but he doesn’t stretch with them as he does on his best work and as he continued to do until the end of his life. That’s to be expected, as these were basically the songs that weren’t good enough to be released at the time.

But what really hurts New Moon as a collection is its overwhelming abundance and the sequencing, which not only eschews chronology but sonic variety. Kill Rock Stars had originally planned a deluxe edition of Either/Or, which would have included the related outtakes here. That might have been a better plan, as it would illustrate the artistic decisions to include, say, “Between the Bars” or “Angeles” instead of the title track (a decent song, but hardly competition for anything on that airtight album). Here, we’re just stuck with a bunch of okay tracks with some sparks of greatness, but too few highlights.*

* And, yes, an alternate take on “Miss Misery” is one of them. This song’s popularity among Smith fans has always perplexed me. It’s an anomaly among Academy Award nominees, sure, but not in the Smith catalog, where it pales beside album tracks from the same period and after.


Written by Dave

January 13, 2008 at 5:07 pm

4 Responses

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  1. The Shins’ are probably THE reason I waited so long before diving into indie music. My friends have always loved Modest Mouse and Of Montreal and The Mountain Goats and all these other artists that I now enjoy. But They also liked the Shins, who bore the devil out of me.

    For whatever reason, I attributed this to their “indieness” (I think Garden State did this to me) and figured “oh, I guess I don’t really like indie music. I bet it’s for assholes who wear colorful socks and satchels and are constantly asking each other if they’re ‘going to the show tonight’, whatever the fuck that means.”

    Patrick Ripoll

    January 15, 2008 at 6:29 pm

  2. If you’ve only heard them out of context, give Oh, Inverted World a listen straight through. I find it hard to believe that someone who likes Guided by Voices can’t get something out of “Know Your Onion!” which is probably the best song GbV never wrote.

    I’d also think the relative lo-fi-ness of that album would hold some appeal for you. Aside from the drums, I think Mercer recorded the whole album in his bedroom.


    January 16, 2008 at 8:21 am

  3. “Kill Rock Stars had originally planned a deluxe edition of Either/Or, which would have included the related outtakes here.”

    Wasn’t that debunked as some guy at KRS making shit up? I thought I heard about that too but then nothing came of it.

    I also want to second Patrick. My friends wouldn’t stop going on about how great they were and I just attributed it to the fact that they were indie and had songs in “Garden State.” A movie I love, but damn people that was 3 years ago – give it a rest.

    Andrew Eaton

    January 23, 2008 at 8:23 am

  4. If your friends got into the Shins because of Garden State, they were way behind the curve. Oh, Inverted World came out in 2001 and was widely acclaimed by the indie (and even some mainstream) press right off the bat. Garden State wasn’t released until 2004, which was even after 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow, another album that hit tons of top ten lists. Before Garden State, they were already on the verge of getting the attention they eventually got through the movie.

    They’re great albums because they’re great albums, not because of Garden State. When critics and fans start putting out their best-of-the-decade lists in a few years, you’re going to see Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow on a lot of them, and I’m positive that this would have been the case even if Garden State had never been made.

    I have no idea about the KRS Either/Or thing. I read that somewhere, and it seemed pretty believable. Even if it’s not true, that context would have served the songs better.


    January 23, 2008 at 8:48 am

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