Josh Ritter - Fever Breaks - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Josh Ritter - Fever Breaks

by Mark Moody Rating:8 Release Date:2019-04-26
Josh Ritter - Fever Breaks
Josh Ritter - Fever Breaks

Plugging away at his craft for over 20 years now, Idaho bred singer/songwriter Josh Ritter has come up with his best album in nearly a decade with Fever Breaks.  Ritter hit his stride back in the early 2000s with flawless albums like The Animal Years and the succeeding (and not so humbly named) The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter.  On Fever Breaks, Ritter gets an able assist by Jason Isbell as producer and is backed by Isbell’s band The 400 Unit.  Ritter’s stock in trade has always been the tender ballad marked with seemingly simple, yet ingenious, turns of phrase.  I still get the line “I stir my sugar with a spoon”, from Animal Years’ ‘One More Mouth To Feed’, stuck in my head from time to time.  But here, Ritter finally finds himself holding his own in more thunderous company and proves himself able bandleader as well as being just as capable with the pen.

On that more involved note, the brooding opener ‘Ground Don’t Want Me’ has The 400 Unit burbling along in the tale of a renegade son.  As fleshed out as the sound is the real icing on the cake here is Amanda Shires’ harmony vocal.  The album’s most powered up moments happen though on ‘Old Black Magic’ and the later ‘Losing Battles’.  Both songs are full of biblical allegory (those who write in the dust vs those who throw stones, snakes, poison apples and the like) but undershot with blazing guitars at the hand of Isbell and longtime guitarist Sadler Vaden.  But most prominently pushing Ritter’s vocals along are the roiling rhythm section of Jimbo Hart (bass) and Chad Gamble (drums).  Both songs have a wholly believable gravitas to make them album highlights. 

For those fans of Ritter’s literary flair (like Shires), the filagreed ‘On The Water’ stands out.  A chance at connection is described as the impossible “just a short walk on the water”, but that seemingly simple line is undone by the devastating “my heart is a silver fish on the line of your laughter”.  If you can’t envision the sunny glint on a fluttering minnow you are a heartless one indeed.  ‘I Still Love You (Now and Then)’ is a much simpler sentiment, but it’s such a catchy ballad that the nostalgic look back works well.  In spite of Ritter’s ability here to front a band that can fire on all cylinders, the unobtrusiveness of their presence on the closing ‘Blazing Highway Home’ speaks volumes as well.  Ritter’s acoustic strum is barely accented by a lonesome slide guitar imagining places envisioned, but not seen - “somewhere the high cliffs, somewhere the waves hit white”.  It recalls the most stripped down moments of other brilliant songwriters like Steve Earle or John Hiatt that can also peak out the meters when called for.

The album sounds the most Isbellish on the country colored ‘A New Man’ that sounds an outtake from Isbell’s Something More Than Free.  Ritter also gets more politically pointed than is typical for him.  As barbed as ‘All Some Kind of Dream’ is, with references to children in holding pens and hours when we took them in, it’s all softened by a sunshiny folk melody that conjures up John Denver in a buckskin fringe jacket.  But on the other side of that coin, the more cryptic and ominous ‘The Torch Committee’ hits its intended mark.  Though some may not take to the tone, the procedural gibberish that Ritter so staidly recites brings back a Red Scare squeamishness of man vs government.  A time when manufactured evidence was so stacked against an individual as to make the glimmer of hope an ever dimming light.  Juxtaposing that dark stain against today’s political landscape becomes the nightmare we don’t want to recur but might be living.

No doubt Ritter covers a lot of ground, both in sound and content, on Fever Breaks.  It’s as if given the chance to front a band of The 400 Unit’s caliber he wanted to make sure he touched all the bases.  Even if Fever Breaks may not be a grand slam, it’s still the musical equivalent of a seasoned veteran hitting a shot where from the crack of the bat there is no doubt that the ball is going to clear the fence. 

The album is currently streaming on NPR First Listen until its release date.



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