Album Review

Ray LaMontagne - Till the Sun Turns Black

Ray LaMontagne - Till The Sun Turns Black

These days emerging artists arrive at the marketplace wrapped in myths of origin and self-discovery that too often double as prisons of real and alleged influences. In the case of Ray LaMontagne, he of the roar redolent of a bear with its paw in a trap, press clips insist that he sounds like everyone from Otis Redding and Bob Dylan to Elliott Smith and Van Morrison. Always and everywhere, Van Morrison. He doesn't. Sure, his 2004 debut interpolates snatches of such Woodstock-era anthems as "Just Like A Woman", "Feelin' Alright", and "The Weight", as well as hints of "Crazy Love" and "Into The Mystic". But then so do car and beer commercials. After the fashion of inveterate magpie Ryan Adams, who likewise has worked with neo-classic-rock producer Ethan Johns, LaMontagne might have lifted riffs and phrases from what was on his iPod when he was making the album. That still doesn't make him sound any more like Otis (not soulful enough), Dylan (not prophetic enough), Smith (not miserable enough), or Morrison (not visionary enough) than most any other young artist. A mix of Joe Cocker and Cat Stevens maybe, or even Maine's answer to Richie Havens, but I probably shouldn't go there. And I'm not sure it would do anybody justice, listeners or musicians. Ultimately LaMontagne sounds like no one so much as himself -- an urgent, introspective troubadour with a gruff burr and a penchant for "romanticizing some pain," as Joni Mitchell once put it. In other words, like a singer-songwriter who leans more toward the folk-rock than the pop-rock end of the spectrum. As for the ominously titled new Till The Sun Turns Black, it's no rehash of its predecessor, no Trouble II, as LaMontagne's current bio vouches. The album gets off to a torpid start, but by track three, brother Ray (for awhile he adopted the surname "Raycharles") more or less does a 180 and gets his groove on. We're not talking funk here so much as undertow -- pressing rhythms that juke, churn and gain traction in ways that those on his debut rarely did. A subdued charmer, "Barfly" is hooked by hypnotic, syncopated strumming, its whispering brushes and filigrees of electric guitar auguring the blues and jazz inflections to come. And the occasional soul moves: On the track that follows ("Three More Days"), the nagging backbeat, simmering organ and booting brass are the New England equivalent of southern fatback, with LaMontagne approximating Stax-like intensity on the vamp. Elsewhere, "Gone Away From Me" employs Crescent City triplets to gorgeous effect, while "You Can Bring Me Flowers", a noirish boogie, is tricked out with muted, minor-key horns and slinky guitar, snare, and flute breaks. These two tracks, along with the pair mentioned above, anchor the album's galvanizing midsection. Taken together, they suggest LaMontagne has begun to internalize, as opposed to imitating, the Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and Nina Simone records he dotes on in interviews. A pair of other numbers, notably the Iberian-tinged fable "Lessons Learned", would have been right at home on the soundtrack to Robert Altman's Leonard Cohen showcase, McCabe & Mrs. Miller. More than just LaMontagne's rhythmic palette has opened up here, though. In a progression analogous to, but not directly evocative of, that evident in Nick Drake's work between the releases of Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter, the arrangements on Till The Sun have gained in boldness, color, and sweep. Most sublime are the strings, which heave, shimmer, and otherwise temper LaMontagne's wounded moan and lend it ballast. This is especially the case when his lyrics, which tend to favor generality, convey less than his prodigious emoting. Indeed, sometimes the words can be tired ("The answer is within you") or just plain jive ("Be here now"). Bereft of orchestration or groove, LaMontagne's naked howling might have verged on the melodramatic, a charge that only a churl could hope to sustain given the singer's otherwise flat affect, much less his hard-won glory. As with LaMontagne's debut, the new album's most far-reaching moment comes deep into the program. On Trouble, it was the "Feelin' Alright" cop "How Come", where, in an anguished cry for a world in which people and nations only seem bent on hurting each other, he sings: Everybody on a shoestring, everybody in a hole Everybody on an old jet plane crossing their fingers and toes Government man spin his politics till they got you pinned Everybody trying to reach out to each other but they don't know where to begin I said how come I can't tell The free world from living hell... How come all I see Is a child of god in misery? The pair of tracks that close Till The Sun open outward in a similarly prophetic way. The first taps the outrage of "How Come", while in the latter LaMontagne pleads "War is not the answer" in what feels like a deliberate echo of "Mind Games", right down to its dreamy arrangement. It might not be the stuff of Nobel laureates, but it's pretty damn salutary, especially with the likes of Neil Young charging that younger singers aren't raising their voices in the face of global aggression, much of it perpetrated by the United States. No less crucial, this prophetic turn suggests a fresh point of departure for LaMontagne, a gifted singer who's still finding his voice as a writer, one who might be best served by a muse that looks outward as often as inward. Not to mention one that can untangle myth from reality and let Ray be Ray.