After his monumentally mundane fourth album The Animal Years, Josh Ritter was hard-pressed to deliver an album worth putting pen to paper for. The Idaho-born singer-songwriter with a knack for softly-crooned country ditties struck a chord from the off with the Irish masses, who have played a pivotal role in his career thus far (and that's just the funding).Now back with the follow-up to that awful nadir of optimism, the grandly-titled Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter is a surprising and welcome shift in direction for Ritter, and probably the most adventurous material that he's ever composed. Having said that, the fact that this album was recorded in an 18th century farmhouse in Maine discloses that it's not a completely different beast to its predecessors, and the downbeat, folk-orientated tracks like The Temptation of Adam and Still Beating are the safe ballads that will ensure his loyal fanbase won't desert in the face of evolution. The more interesting material is littered in-between those non-starters; the uptempo Mind's Eye and Open Doors recall The Band jamming with Brendan Benson; Rumors and Right Moves are coated with the warm, poppy, '70s fuzz of Wings, or perhaps Fleetwood Mac; Next To the Last Romantic is out-and-out scuzzy, energetic Dylan, and the introduction of a subtle horn section on many tracks is a welcome addition, and one that mixes Ritter's usual dreary sound up somewhat. It's the fabulous Real Long Distance that most impresses, though - a poppy, thumping piano riff that weaves its way over a rambunctious drumming pattern and winding sax ramble, it's probably the best thing that the drawling troubadour has ever done. Having said all of that, just because Ritter's taken a turn for the better doesn't mean that this album is anything more than decent; but as far as shaking off that silly 'swoonsome poet with a guitar' tag that people (i.e. Frames fans) have pinned him with, it's certainly a good start.