Brian Deck, the former frontman for under-appreciated indie rockers Red Red Meat and the producer behind Modest Mouse’s The Moon And Antarctica is at the helm of folk sensation Josh Ritter’s major label debut The Animal Years. Ritter is a talented songwriter with a loyal fanbase—particularly in Europe—but Animal Years is not likely to be the breakout hit his many fans anticipate. Where Deck honed The Moon And Antarctica into a quirky wonder of an album and fleshed out Iron And Wine’s Sam Beam’s songs with a much-needed warmth, Animal Years sounds unsettled: the arrangements are far too bombastic for this record’s purposes. Ritter comes from the tradition of nice-guy folksters like Cat Stevens and James Taylor, but with an array of synthesizers, organs, and ukuleles in tow, he sounds more like David Gray.
The album opens strong, with the protest ballad “Girl In The War.” Depicting a conversation between the apostles Peter and Paul, Ritter’s lyrics have a lot of weight and confidence, but his voice is too timid for the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-esque mess of chimes and drones behind his tenor. On some tracks, such as “Wolves,” Ritter’s voice is slightly distorted, as if to compensate for its lack of edge, and the effect is awkward. It’s as though Deck and Ritter can’t decide if they’re producing music for the VH1 crowd or Jim O’Rourke groupies. The tracks with a more modest production, such as “Monster Ballads” or “In The Dark,” aren’t as lyrically or melodically as impressive, but the naturalness better suits the performance. Ritter is not redefining the way folk music is written or performed, he just writes and performs good folk songs; overproducing these songs is like pouring maple syrup over a cheeseburger.
Not surprisingly, the stark “Idaho,” where Ritter’s falsetto is accompanied only by a thinly plucked guitar, is Animal Years’ loveliest moment. An ode to his home state, it’s a raw and tender ballad delivered with a shaky, breathy voice that trembles over dreamy lyrics where a lover’s letter can turn “the masts to cedar trees/And the winds to gravel roads.” It’s the type of song Freedy Johnston used to be able to write, and it’s a testament to Ritter’s extensive gifts as a folksinger. And matched with a producer who can capitalize on Ritter’s coy persona, rather than try and conceal it, he’s bound to produce a masterpiece.