Cult troubadour Josh Ritter easily could've tripped up trying to follow last year's The Animal Years, a record so rich, rootsy, and timeless that it was like it'd been buried underground for 30 years. But rather than strain to make something as grand, Ritter just lets it rip on The Historical Conquests Of Josh Ritter, pairing his usual homages to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen with the contained rowdiness of indie-rockers like Spoon and Bright Eyes. The results aren't as strong as The Animal Years, but the album works as an exercise in staying loose, and trusting talent to bridge the gaps. The Historical Conquests is at its best when Ritter's off-the-cuff approach intersects with a winning pop melody, as on "Right Moves" and "Empty Hearts," where the neatly arranged horns, fiddles, and piano play against Ritter's tumbling lyrics. Elsewhere, Ritter relies too much on production trickery and vocal tics to mask underwritten material. But that's the nature of exploration: exciting new territories, leading to the occasional dead end.