Singer-songwriter Josh Ritter counts among his role models Townes Van Zandt, Gillian Welch, and Leonard Cohen–all refugees from middle-class respectability who combined the boho-folkie aesthetic with high-art lyrics. Ritter, born in the late 70s “to two neuroscientists” per his bio, first recorded in 1999, but it was his self-produced Golden Age of Radio, released in 2001, that made the contemporary folk world take notice. The single “Me & Jiggs” made him a pop star in Ireland, and since then he’s played gigs on both sides of the Atlantic, sharing bills with such diverse figures as Liz Phair, Damien Rice, and Joan Baez (whose latest album includes a cover of “Wings,” from Ritter’s new CD, Hello Starling). Ritter’s best work usually involves the juxtaposition of opposites: his densely woven lyric imagery threatens to slip into obscurantist pretentiousness (“There were hearts as big as apples and apples in the shape of Mary’s heart / I said inside this gilded cage a songbird always looks so plain”), but it’s redeemed by his whispery, adolescent-sounding voice and feathery guitar playing–he comes off almost like a savant, channeling complex allegorical images through the wonder-struck sensibility of a Blakean innocent. He’s at his best when he’s least encumbered, as on the delicately romantic “You Don’t Make It Easy Babe” (reminiscent of pop-folk standards like Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”) and “Bone of Song,” which portrays the singer as a questing bard. “Bright Smile” starts off as a bucolic ode to domestic tranquility, but when the poppy backing kicks in, Ritter’s sweet murmur and Sunday-morning-on-the-commune lyrics drown in the treacle. And “rockers” like “Man Burning” and “Snow Is Gone” make James Taylor sound like Iggy Pop. With the Lesser Birds of Paradise: Saturday, November 29, 7:30 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000. Also 3 PM, Borders Books & Music, 1144 Lake, Oak Park; 708-386-6927.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ed Braverman.