Saturday, January 31, 2009
LaMontagne Is No Flash-in-the-Pan
Ray LaMontagne is a throwback. He writes songs that are not immediately accessible. His style is so soft-spoken that you swear that when you listen to his CD for the first time that it will also be the last. But then, like the vinyl days of yore, you leave the disc in your tray just long enough to allow its subtle magic to work on you.
The lyrics of the songs on 2006's Till the Sun Turns Black (the CD that's made me a fan) are the first element that grabbed my ear. Then you start thinking about the structure of the songs—for example, the repeated question on "Can I Stay" or the clever refrain of "You Can Bring Me Flowers".
You can bring me flowers
when I'm dead and gone
The sinuous musicianship impresses you next. Trumpets, flutes, euphonium, and violins are just a few of the instruments that provide the context. Oh, I suppose some people might call it "chamber folk", but after this initial listen, you realize the label doesn't fit. Ray can throw one hell of a curve!
He was originally named Raycharles Montagne, and I'm here to say this boy has a good dose of blue-eyed soul. Impressive coming from a bearded, flannel-shirt wearin' recluse who lives in a former cabin of Norman Mailer's in the woods of Maine. Check out the track "Three More Days." I was amazed at the slick channeling of the Muscle Shoals sound on this one!
La Montagne has a soft voice, but it really works on you. It's really idiosyncratic—very high-pitched, kinda Jeff Buckley-like. Once again, when you first listen you'll think this is good music for polishing your furniture by, but upon repeated exposure you start appreciating the suppleness of this instrument.
I've just got to love a guy who found a good record store and used it as his university. Ray took his courses in Dylan, Mitchell, et al at this place. Here's what he says about that six-year intense listening period. Here's Ray recounting that time in a 2006 interview in The Washington Post.
"I lived for the chance to get back there and dig through the stacks, find something new, something that I hadn't heard -- whether it was another Stephen Stills record or Bob Dylan, Neil Young or the Band, Sonny Boy Williamson, Nina Simone, just a gazillion people, Etta James, Joni Mitchell, Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones, Leadbelly. I loved everything, and I lived for that time after work, putting on a record and having a sandwich or macaroni and cheese, whatever I could pull together at that time, and just listening to those records."
So, after that, Ray thought he might have something to say. He was working long hours in a shoe factory, but he strapped on his guitar and went to work. His dad was a musician, although he wasn't a major part of Ray's life. (Ray's mother had six children by different men, and he led an itinerant existence growing up.)
He has been nothing short of a sensation since then. The title track of his initial release on RCA, 2004's Trouble, was performed by Taylor Hicks on "American Idol". Kelly Clarkson performed another track from this work, and the CD was also used in "ER" and "Rescue Me" .
I'd read the plaudits, but I'm late to his music. Last fall he released his third album, and he's now touring Europe to wide acclaim. If you start with Till the Sun Turns Black, you won't turn back. You'll be spellbound and grateful that a new and entirely original voice has emerged on the music scene.