From lullabies to ’60s rock
By MATTHEW PARRISH
Ray LaMontagne, everybody’s favorite lullabist (it’s a word now), by his own admission, didn’t set out to radically alter his style and shock his enchanted fanbase, but that’s exactly what he’s done with his fifth album, the pitch-perfect ’60s throwback “Supernova.” He told americansongwriter.com, “Nothing was sounding interesting to me. I’d think, I don’t want to do that, or, I’ve done that already. It was as if the well had run dry.”
So he heeded the advice of his pal Elvis Costello, who told him to listen to his inner voice, and came out swinging with psychedelic grooves, hazy atmospherics, assertive melodies and one of the best records of 2014.
The opening chords of “Lavender” immediately alert the audience to the new direction with the sound of Jefferson Airplane’s epic classic “White Rabbit.” The gesture signals where LaMontagne’s mind’s at, what he’s listening to and what he’s aiming for. And normally, I would call BS on such a blatant act of theft. But the thing is that LaMontagne’s voice is so perfect for this type of music that instead of sounding like he’s stealing, he sounds like he’s making the music a part of him.
Still, the deliberate acts of appropriation are a bit surprising for an artist who has built a career on sincerity. I mean this is the guy who released “Till the Sun Turns Black,” the most “baby-sleeping-in-the-next-room, I’ll sing all your troubles away” album I’d heard since Cat Stevens. He’s the guy who wears his heart on his sleeve, who sings songs called “You’re the Best Thing” and “New York City’s Killing Me,” as if he’s eternally a teenager scribbling down his first tune to debut at the coffee house next week.
But the collaging makes more sense when one learns that professional thief Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys produced the album. Auerbach is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to sounding like a classic rock jukebox. I mean, this is the guy who actually used the melody of “Stairway to Heaven” (for Christ’s sake!) for the song “Little Black Submarine” on “El Camino,” as if we would be able to think of anything else as the band performs it.
But the difference between Auerbach’s standard excavating and LaMontagne’s is that the latter’s voice is so good that it just melts into the sound, making you actually believe that perhaps he is the author rather than the borrower. I mean sure, I can hear The Byrds and “Safe as Milk”-era Captain Beefheart (who the singer himself named as an influence) on this record, but what I feel and appreciate are LaMontagne’s emotions and songcraft.
I can’t help but smile as he not only tries to place me into a hippie utopia with his sound, but with his words as well. In “Lavender,” he sings, “We lie, under a lavender sky/ Under a lavender sky we lie/ Do you, do you remember the day?/ Do you remember when we felt that way?/ Free to play, as a child we ran/ Through fields of clover/ Underneath the sun … “
What a setting, right? You just imagine doing those romantic, summery things as his voice not only scales “White Rabbit” but commands it too, making you forget that he’s mining classic rock and instead allowing you to revel in the mood.
Every song is effective, engulfing and fun to boot. From the playfulness in LaMontagne’s voice as he says, “I’m comin’ witchoo” in the casual “Airwaves” and the raspy speed talking of “She’s the One,” to The Kinks crunch of “Julia,” the ladykiller (who has been, much to the disappointment of his adoring fans, with the same girl since he was 16) just seems like he’s having a great time. And if you listen, you will too. As far as I’m concerned, this reclusive, enigmatic American musician has made an instant classic.
5 stars out of 5.
DOWNLOAD NOW: “She’s the One.”