Josh Ritter

Gathering

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In an essay penned for NPR in advance of the release of his ninth studio long-player, Josh Ritter said of creating Gathering: "I had that feeling you get when the sky is suddenly dark before a summer storm; the thunder heads looming at the edge of the fields, the birds quiet. The smell of the gathering electricity in the atmosphere, the certainty of lightning." It's an apt summation of this 12-track set, which eases the listener in with a balmy, a cappella country-gospel opener ("Shaker Love Song [Leah]"), before letting the clouds open up with the one-two punch of "Showboat," a soulful and self-effacing countrypolitan rocker that sounds like a funked-up version of Glen Campbell's "Gentle on My Mind," and "Friendamine," an affable, country-blues boogie with an out-of-nowhere backwards organ solo. What follows is one of Ritter's loosest and most rewarding outings to date, delivering a steady stream of compelling characters caught between bravado and vulnerability, constantly trying to find their emotional footing. Culled from a reported 30 recorded tracks, Gathering doles out its fair share of rockers -- after a brief, sepia-tone Salvation Army Band-style intro, a wash of feedback heralds in the LP's most juke joint-worthy offering, "Cry Softly" -- but Ritter is still a balladeer at heart. The achingly lovely "Thunderbolt's Goodnight" and the gospel-tinged "When Will I Be Changed," the latter of which is a duet with the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir, provide more than adequate shelter from the electricity-hurling antics of the Gods above, and serve as a reminder that behind every wall of storm clouds is a patient blue sky.

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