The first time I heard Josh Ritter was when he supported The Frames at The Limelight in 2001 (read about that gig here). It was not lost on me when I am falling in love with his new record at the same time as Glen Hansard’s brilliant Didn’t He Ramble. It was Hansard who heard Ritter and brought him to Ireland where we have taken him as one of our own. It was not lost on me when I am falling in love with his new record at the same time as Glen Hansard’s brilliant Didn’t He Ramble.
And here’s the thing. That night in 2001 Hansard was all rocked up with a band and Ritter was the troubadour with acoustic quitar and the classic songwriters template. Here in 2015 it is Ritter getting all rocked up and Hansard with the acoustic songwriter strum.
These guys have much in common and their records both come out of similar influences; Dylan, Springsteen, Morrison and Cohen. On these parallel releases though it is Ritter who stretches the form and brings in the most intriguing of sounds. For someone like me who probably checks the lyrics even before I put on the record I have to admit that Sermon On The Rocks turned my default listening on its head. The music is so fresh and imaginative that I was intrigued by the rhythms and grooves and the sharp shiny guitar sounds.
Producer Trina Showmaker throws all the colours of her palate at these songs, from right at the core of the city rock, to the edge of country, to the middle of country and ends up almost out on the cowboy range. It is intoxicating stuff.
On top of the freshness of sound Ritter weaves his tales. He has a side job as a novelist for goodness sake and has a Flannery O’Connor eye for a character, a story or an eccentric part of the American heartland. Like O’Connor, almost the entire piece is God haunted, though for Ritter the Garden of Eden is more the compass point than Calvary. The Sermon on the Mount, as you might expect from the album’s title, gets sprinkled across it too. These songs don’t ditch the Christianity of Ritter’s Sunday School upbringing but certainly hacks through its hypocrisy and narrow mindedness.
There’s the girl who is sent to Bible School in Missouri to save her from her sins but who seems to have found all the sin she could enjoy (Ready To Get Down). I particularly love:
"No "ooh la-las, no "oh, hell yeses"
No "I can't wait 'til I gotta see you agains's"
Just turn the other cheek, take no chances
Jesus hates your high school dances"
There’s Henrietta, Indiana and a tale of poverty, alcohol, the Bible and a struggle to live it: -
"Blessed be the poor," he said
"Your treasure is on high."
All of Henrietta, Indiana heard me Hallelujah
When I finally saw the devil in his eyes
It’s the same small town escape story that Springtseen and, maybe even more so, Steve Earle made their own. Ritter, however, is more nimble of pen and tongue: -
At night I leave a bottle on the table
The Bible open to the Sermon on the Mount
Blessed be the poor of Henrietta, Indiana
But happy are the ones that get out
The album opens with an apocalyptic tale: -
I didn't come to ask you how you're doing these days
Didn't come to roll no stones away, no
I come to tell you that the end is nigh
I come to prophesy, yeah
After travelling through the “back roads and boneyards” of Ohio, Indiana and Missouri feeling “the pulse of the world pounding” and "the pull of the American darkness” Ritter ends in what sounds like a campfire out on the prairie singing about salvation and redemption. It is a thriller and winner in its sonics, its storytelling and its memorable lines. It does indeed rock. Is indeed a whole lot sermon.
I been prayin'
Though will some say my prayers fall on deaf ears
I never doubted you
My man on a horse is here”