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Josh Ritter has fun with varied voices on his newest release

There's a convincing line in "To the Dogs or Whoever" in which Josh Ritter sings about how much he loves seeing his girlfriend in her underwear. The rest of the song references Joan of Arc, Jonah, Calamity Jane, Florence Nightingale, Crimea, Christ and "Casey at the Bat."

The song is breathlessly wordy à la Dylan; you wonder how he gets it all in. Ritter says it's his favorite song among the 14 on his August release, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter.

"It feels like a joke a second," he writes via e-mail, "and it's so much fun to play."

A lot about making Historical Conquests was fun for Ritter, he says, although anyone who's seen him perform will size him up as having a pretty low fun threshold; he seems to be enjoying the heck out of life and the music and the crowd, even when singing his most profound or tragic lyrics.

Still, for Historical Conquests to be fun, Ritter had to conquer extraordinary pressure. He'd released his critically acclaimed The Animal Years just the previous year, on the very day his label, V2, went belly up. As that potential career rocket stalled, Ritter landed on his feet with Sony, but a new product was needed, pronto.

Ritter got busy writing songs, recording them catch-as-catch-can on breaks from touring. In the process, he found himself writing in different voices, voices that required amplification in both volume and instrumentation. The result is a leap into a louder, more fantastical direction that is nevertheless in complete harmony with the music that's made him both a critics' darling and one of the best date concerts on the planet.

"I'd been feeling constrained by something as I began to write. ... Nothing felt real to me," he says. "As I continued to write, I began to realize that was what I should be going for--not a single, cohesive voice, but as many characters out there that felt comfortable within a song. It became less about my character and more about all the others I was seeing out there."

The process soon found a theme. "I had an idea in my head that most of the songs ... would be played by a band called the Plastic Cups. They would be a great roadhouse band like Otis Day, and you'd walk in off the highway, and there they'd be. I wanted lots of these songs to be more about the party than anything else."

And it was to be a noisy party. "I wanted a bigger, boomier sound," he adds, noting that "there is a lot of stuff going on production-wise on this record. That being said, the arena for production was pretty lo-fi. We didn't do much besides write, play, eat and shoot BB guns. And drink beer."

With "Wait for Love," Historical Conquests provides a conveniently explicit example of how Ritter synthesizes the music we might expect from him with that of his new voices. The tune appears twice: first in a dreamy, solo acoustic treatment to make the girls swoon, and second as a rollicking, roadhouse sing-along. A simple, memorable tune, it has a folky quality in its first incarnation, and could be an early Wilco classic in its second.

"It was just fun to have both," explains Ritter. "The solo version ... was recorded early on in the sessions. The (other) was recorded on the last night of recording, with all kinds of people around the mics. It was a great capper to the whole process, and like everything on this record, was a real blast to make."

Ritter's other voices are most apparent on "Open Doors" and "Real Long Distance," both unusually opaque in subject matter and acerbic in the telling. "Empty Hearts" is clearly from the roadhouse-party paradigm, with a country angle and country-tinged wordplay, but it's given a sensitive treatment in the Ritter mold. The simply beautiful "Still Beating" is all Ritter, a half-up song for an all-down day, and so is the quirky, micro-instrumental "Edge of the World," with its pretty guitar work and toy piano.

Ritter is bringing all his voices to Plush on Saturday, Oct. 27. He's looking forward to it, of course, because that's his nature. The concert is unlikely to be as memorable as his last one in Tucson, at Solar Culture, however. Joan Baez was in town at the same time to perform at the Fox Theatre and stopped by to shoot the breeze. She had come to know Ritter when she recorded his "Wings" for her Dark Chords on a Big Guitar. On that 2003 album, Baez gathered songs from newer writers she admired, including Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, Ryan Adams and Joe Henry, as well as Ritter.

"She brought me whiskey," he recalls, "and we crushed pennies on the train tracks. Awesome!"

More by Linda Ray

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