- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Idaho-based songwriter Josh Ritter has just wrapped up a year of grand accomplishments and honors. Most notably, he delivered his stunning major-label debut, “The Animal Years,” which landed him on late-night talk shows and dozens of critics’ year-end best-of lists. (Novelist Stephen King rated his disc No. 1, as did National Public Radio’s “World Cafe.”)

“It’s a gratifying experience to have people kind of accept the record,” the artist says. “It’s taken a lot of time to get to the point where I can put out a record where anybody but my mom would hear it.”

While appreciative of the disc’s reception, he’s trying to steer clear of the hype. “The most obvious directions [to go from here] are bigger and better, but I don’t necessarily think that’s the coolest way,” he explains.

Mr. Ritter’s haunting lyrics and precise instrumental compositions (listen to the barely-there accompaniment on “Idaho”) show some disregard for today’s mainstream conceptions of “cool.” Instead, they are the work of an artist who somehow manages to transcend his era, crafting songs nearly as classic as those from balladeers Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan (to whom he’s often compared).

His tracks wrestle with big, evergreen topics such as war, love and self-perception; his real-life conversations show an uncanny ability to mine poetic richness from the everyday. On the phone, for example, he discusses the joys of instant coffee crystals, small talk at the gas station with his neighbors, completing a marathon or two, and buying a spiffy white suit (“like Mark Twain”) for his upcoming tour.

Perhaps his perspective has something to do with his small-town roots.

Mr. Ritter grew up in Moscow, Idaho (where he’s now a homeowner), where he began learning frets at the ripe age of 18 after discovering the Bob Dylan/Johnny Cash duet “Girl From the North Country.”

From there on, he gigged and toured and gigged and toured some more, releasing one self-titled album on his own in 1999 and two more on indie imprint Signature Sounds: 2002’s “Golden Age of Radio” and 2003’s “Hello Starling.”

His investment is finally paying dividends.

As if he needed any more support for his latest disc, Mr. Ritter is gearing up for a solo tour, which will bring him back into the spotlight after years of sharing the stage with a backing band.

“It’s where I started, where I’m the most comfortable; I have a great time with the crowd. When you’re playing solo, people can tell if you’re lying. They can tell when you’re faking. … It’s like politicians; we all know when they’re giving a stock answer.”

Mr. Ritter will try his best to tell the truth on Sunday (sold out) and Monday at 7:30 p.m., when he headlines Alexandria’s Birchmere (www.birchmere.com). Dawn Landes opens.

Bilal resurfaces

Philly-born soul artist Bilal’s name was gold even before he dropped his own album, thanks to production credits and appearances on records by Chicago emcee Common, genre-shuffler Guru and Southern-fried soulstress Erykah Badu.

After the musician released his 2001 debut, “1st Born Second,” his trademark funked-out falsetto seemed to be echoing on every urban street corner.

Songs like the neo-soul anthem “Soul Sista” had as much craft as chart-potential, owing to Bilal’s formal musical training and wide-ranging taste in genre, from blues to classic rock, reggae to Radiohead. People noticed, and buzz grew.

Then, something happened. Or didn’t happen.

Flash forward to 2007, when fans’ posts on his Web site’s message boards read: “Where you at?,” “What about the new CD???,” “I can wait no longer.”

Bilal’s explanation? He’s been doing “spot gigs” and continuing to develop new material for himself and others — like his cameo on Clipse’s latest, “Hell Hath No Fury.”

Plus, he says, he’s had some “back and forth” with his record label, Interscope, mostly related to the accidental leak and subsequent shelving of his sophomore album.

Fans shouldn’t worry, though; he promises a follow-up disc, and says that regardless of who ultimately releases it, it will include his usual brand of “intellectual funk.”

“What I’ve been doing is … going for a sound and really trying to polish things so [the record] has a definite vibe to it. I don’t think people do that anymore. There’s two or three good songs on [discs these days], but you can’t really play the whole album.”

It will be awhile before anyone can play Bilal’s full album, but Washingtonians can catch the soulful crooner on Saturday night at the Black Cat (www.blackcatdc.com) with Ellington Felton.

He’ll be rocking some new tunes, some favorites, and some stuff he and his seven-piece live band will “make up right there.”

Showtime is at 9.

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