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Josh Ritter

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Unassuming folkie Josh Ritter probably isn’t the first guy you’d think of to proudly carry the Meat Loaf legacy into the new century. But on third album The Animal Years, Ritter proves he’s capable of getting as scarf-wavingly theatrical as anybody. Armed with a new record deal and a fancy producer to match—Red Red Meat vet/Modest Mouse knob-twiddler Brian Deck—Ritter essays a sound that’s flashier, more percussive, and more energetic than anything he’s done to date. This sonic evolution is fitting, given that Ritter’s focus on The Animal Years shifts from the lovelorn ballads that have been his trademark to decidedly weightier fare. The singer’s fears about religious fanaticism and his anger over the war in Iraq frame much of this album, from the lovely, plaintive track that kicks off the set (“Girl in the War”) to the disc’s thematic crescendo, the apocalyptic “Thin Blue Flame.” Clocking in at a hefty 9:38, “Flame” is this musical’s showstopper, heavy on the drums, heavier still on the drama, managing to stay just this side of self-indulgent—“If what’s loosed on Earth will be loosed up on high/It’s a hell of a heaven we must go to when we die,” Ritter intones to a thumping, foreboding beat. Set off a few flash pots and Marvin Lee Aday himself would feel right at home. But Deck, thank goodness, is no Jim Steinman, and he keeps Ritter grounded with plenty of more nuanced fare. The spare and haunting “Idaho” showcases Ritter’s easy vocals almost wholly unadorned, and “Lillian, Egypt” and “Wolves” balance their galloping beats with some of his best lyricism to date (“Skin and bones of love won’t make a meal”). Rounding out the set are Ritter’s trademark quiet, beautiful melodies of loves found and lost (“In the Dark” and “Here at the Right Time”), some of which might feel overly familiar to longtime fans. Given his rollicking new producer, why wouldn’t Josh Ritter want to mess with those, too? ’Cause he would do anything for Deck, but he won’t do that.—Mario Correa