Josh Ritter's soothing sound so gracefully captures the simplicity of his rural Idaho home that it's hard to believe he has a large following in Ireland. Yet a chance encounter (and subsequent tour) with Irish rockers the Frames sparked not only a fan base but even a Ritter tribute band in Cork.
Other than earning him a major-label record deal, the increased popularity hasn't changed Ritter much. In fact, his latest, "The Animal Years," seems to focus more on his harder times than on his recent success, with a dejected outlook on "Best for the Best" and bittersweet memories on "Wolves." The faint instrumentation on "Idaho" only stresses Ritter's heartbreaking, melancholy vocals, while "Girl in the War" frames an antiwar sentiment as a conversation between St. Peter and St. Paul. Even at his most jubilant, Ritter keeps a perspective, with reminders of "dry spells" on "Good Man" leading to open possibilities ("There's so much where we ain't been yet").
Hem's songs have a dramatic edge, thanks to their lush arrangements and often-pensive lyrics. But Sally Ellyson's radiant, angelic vocals give a glimmer of hope even to such dreary tunes as "Oh No." Although "No Word From Tom" is a hodgepodge of rarities, covers and outtakes, the collection flows seamlessly, with live tracks recorded just as clearly and precisely as any of the album's studio counterparts.
-- Catherine P. Lewis