Josh Ritter & The Royal City Band, The Low Anthem

Josh Ritter & The Royal City Band

The Beast In Its Tracks, the new album from renowned singer-songwriter Josh Ritter, was released on March 5 on Pytheas Recordings. Of the record, Ritter says, "In the year after my marriage ended, I realized that I had more new songs than I'd ever had at one time. Far from the grand, sweeping feel of the songs on So Runs the World Away, these new songs felt like rocks in the shoe, hard little nuggets of whatever they were, be it spite, remorse, or happiness."

Recorded during 2011-2012 at the Great North Sound Society in Parsonsfield, Maine, The Beast In Its Tracks continues Ritter's longtime collaboration with producer and keyboard player Sam Kassirer. As Josh describes, "I hadn't composed this stuff, I'd scrawled it down, just trying to keep ahead of the heartbreak. They needed to be recorded like that. We needed to work fast, make decisions quickly, keep the songs as spare as they could be kept, and above all never allow ourselves to blunt the sharp edges. Some of the songs were mean or evil. So be it."

The new album follows Ritter's 2010 release, So Runs The World Away, of which Bob Boilen from NPR Music declared, "I've come to expect good records from him...but this one took my breath away," while the Boston Globe praised, "quite sensational…marks the finest music he has made."

In 2011, Ritter made his debut as a published author with his New York Times Best-selling novel, Bright's Passage (Dial Press/Random House). Of the work, Stephen King writes in The New York Times Book Review, "Shines with a compressed lyricism that recalls Ray Bradbury in his prime . . . This is the work of a gifted novelist."

The Low Anthem

From its hand silkscreened cover art to its meticulously crafted songs, The Low Anthem offers work meant to be held, savored, contemplated, and occasionally stomped along to. The Providence, RI, trio's Nonesuch debut offers a distinctly human touch in an era of instant uploading and ephemeral expression. The mood of Oh My God, Charlie Darwin is melancholic from the start—quiet, intimate, full of longing, and often hauntingly beautiful. In its lyrics, a dog-eat-dog society is nearing collapse and relationships are bruised, broken, or irretrievably lost. Yet in their tenor there is a pencil shaving of hope.

The Low Anthem combines folk and blues arrangements with the elegance of chamber music and the fervor of gospel. Much of Oh My God is hushed and hymn-like, but the trio throws a clamorous curve with raw, stomp-and-holler tracks like "The Horizon Is a Beltway" and its version of "Home I'll Never Be," a Jack Kerouac song passed via Tom Waits. Members Ben Knox Miller, Jeff Prystowsky, and Jocie Adams—all students of classical composition—bring a wide range of individual interests to the band. Prystowsky is a scholar of baseball, jazz, and American history. Adams, a classical composer and technical wizard, spent summers working an infrared spectrometer at NASA. And Miller, principle songwriter, painter, and general ruminator, can indeed expound upon the theories of Charles Darwin. They have a formidable work ethic, along with the ability to laugh at their maniacal intensity.

On stage and in its recordings, the trio uses a variety of unusual instrumentation—by its own count, the band mates took turns playing 27 different instruments on Oh My God—that gives its songs, at times, an otherworldly quality. For example, Miller and Prystowsky refurbished a World War I pump organ that had been dragged by chaplains into the battlefield and is now part of The Low Anthem's arsenal of instruments. Adams plays the crotales, a rack of bronze, cymbal-like discs often used with mallets as a percussion instrument. Adams, however, wields a bow to elicit feedback-like sounds. Some critics have called The Low Anthem's sound Americana, but what the group has really done is to conjure a varied and elusive sound of its own.

You Won’t is the musical duo of Josh Arnoudse and Raky Sastri, who first met in 1999 as unlikely fencing partners in a high school production of the Broadway flop “My Favorite Year.” Some 17 years later, they are still collaborating closely but no longer assaulting each other with pointy metal rods. Since the release of their full-length debut “Skeptic Goodbye” in 2012, You Won’t has toured across North America, garnering praise from the likes of SPIN, NPR, KEXP, and The New York Times for their raggedly infectious and charmingly idiosyncratic sound. Their dynamic and enthusiastically unorthodox live performances have earned them supports slots with The Lumineers, The Joy Formidable, Josh Ritter, Lucius, and Deer Tick, and an appearance on NBC’s Last Call with Carson Daly. Their mixed feelings about social media have earned them scorn and derision. “Revolutionaries”, the band’s second LP, is at its heart a reflection on the crumbling of youthful idealism in the face of the compromises and moral ambiguities of adulthood. The title pays tribute both to the duo’s childhood home of Lexington, Massachusetts (site of the first battle of the American Revolution) and to the enduring, quixotic sense of shared purpose that has fueled their creative partnership for more than a decade and a half. Prior to forming You Won’t in early 2011, Arnoudse and Sastri had already been making theater, films, and music together for nearly a dozen years, enduring countless false starts, disappointments, and disillusionments along the way but never wavering in their support for each other and their collaborative vision. Their platonic marriage as a two-man rock’n’roll band proved the biggest challenge yet to this sacred artistic mission, and not coincidentally “Revolutionaries” is rife with references to shaken beliefs, shifting loyalties, and wounded pride. Self-produced by the band at home over a period of two and a half years, “Revolutionaries” is the product of a long, often Sisyphean recording process and approximately 10,000 hours spent banging foreheads against walls. The album’s raw, driving, cacophonous aesthetic is more expansive and sonically adventurous than that of its predecessor, the natural outgrowth of the four-legged noise circus You Won’t has been bringing to dive bars and rock clubs across the US for the past few years. At its musical core is the merging of Arnoudse’s evocative lyrics, lilting melodies and punk-infused guitar with Sastri’s nimble, jazz-inflected percussion and seemingly endless supply of obscure instrumentation (whirly tubes, electronic bagpipes, and singing saw are all employed here). Over 15 intertwining tracks, “Revolutionaries” tells a story of wrong turns, curveballs, and injured buttocks, interspersed with the occasional moment of unexpected clarity. Taken as a whole, the album is a thoughtful and frequently witty meditation on what we choose to believe, who we choose to believe in, and how these choices shape our lives. Most importantly, it represents the latest and most public salvo in a revolution that the members of You Won’t have privately been leading, in some form or another, for the past 17 years.

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