Ray LaMontagne’s debut release, “Trouble,” was an impulse buy purchased on faith alone, as one telling glance at the album sitting on a store shelf revealed a world of musical potential.
True, I could barely pronounce the soul-singing, guitar-strumming, Jesus look-alike’s last name and had yet to discover the passion and depth behind his earnestly throaty vocalizations at the time, but I trusted the voice in my head that has a tendency to make itself known when in the presence of true rock ‘n’ roll talent. And, as I have been known to say, sometimes one must have faith in the music.
“Trouble” did not do me wrong. Instead, it broadened my musical horizons, instilling hope in me and music fans everywhere, and providing proof that emerging artists with actual talent and substance still lurked among the screaming wannabes in today’s ever-fading music scene.
LaMontagne seemingly emerged from the depths of rock ‘n’ roll’s past in 2004 and, known only to the truly musically obsessed, became an underground success, as his album passed from one music fan to the next like a juicy secret. Returning with his eagerly anticipated second release, “Till the Sun Turns Black”, he teams up with producer Ethan Jones once again, overcoming the curse of the sophomore slump.
“Sun” features the same perfect blend of old school rock ‘n’ roll, classic American folk and vintage soul. With influences ranking high in the folk and R&B hierarchies, ranging from Neil Young and Bob Dylan to Otis Redding and Ray Charles, it is hardly a surprise that this album has fulfilled my expectations as a fan and critic.
LaMontagne explores a different side of his soul-driven hippie spirit this time around, offering up 11 tracks that reflect his anguish and isolation. He sings on life, love and everything in between, with such unforgettable lines as, “I never learned to count my blessings/I choose instead to dwell in my disasters.” Needless to say, his lyrics alone speak loudly – pulling at heartstrings, traveling well beyond cliché and weaving masterfully poetic tales.
The album opens with “Be Here Now,” a six-minute dreamlike melody rampant with wisdoms gathered from relationships past and eerily reminiscent of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” days. Inviting listeners to leave yesterday behind and to somehow find solace in the present, LaMontagne warns, “Don’t put your trust in walls/Because walls will only crush you when they fall.”
“Gone Away from Me” expounds on this message, as LaMontagne chides, “Yesterday is gone/Yesterday is dead/Get it through your head and walk away.”
LaMontagne leaves the simplistic approach behind, mixing in everything from keyboards, bass and drums to sax, an entire string section and the occasional horn on such tracks as “Three More Days,” the funk-infused radio single. Gone is the hunger of “Trouble,” as most of “Sun” is sung in quietly whispered breaths, reflecting a much darker side of Ray.
He continues to embark on new musical ground, pushing the boundaries of folk, on “You Can Bring Me Flowers,” a ‘sad, sad, bluesy, bluesy’ song echoing Ben Harper’s musical prowess and telltale sound. Yet he quickly returns to his troubled roots, staying true to his acoustic core on “Can I Stay,” “Empty” and “Lesson Learned,” and refusing to be boxed into one, clear-cut genre.
In “Empty” LaMontagne somberly croons, “Why must I always feel this way/So empty, so estranged,” revealing a man struggling to rise above his own isolated existence. This track is sung with such raw emotion that listeners instantly relate to his heartache, hoping he will escape solitude – though his affliction does make for good listening.
“Gone Away From Me” also takes a more classic approach to old-school folk instrumentals and is seemingly LaMontagne’s answer to Dylan’s “Subterranean Blues.”
But LaMontagne is at his best on “Lesson Learned” a personal favorite comparable to “Trouble’s” “Burn” and “Jolene,” as he strums a tale of a tragic love affair on a Spanish guitar.
Though the artist himself admits, “it’s hard somehow to let go of my pain,” “Sun,” as a whole, explores the inner workings of the outside world beginning with the album’s title track, in which LaMontagne searches for the proverbial bridge to guide him over troubled waters.
Finally, LaMontagne leaves heads spinning, provoking thought with “Within You,” a willowy Beatles-esque track calling for love and harmony. Listeners may be enticed to dawn headbands and flash peace signs, following in his lead as he sings, “War is not the answer/the answer is within you.”
Rest assured, when the sun turns black, LaMontagne will undoubtedly be waiting, flashlight in hand, to shine the way to musical redemption. He would chock it up to a lesson learned.
Jessica Bell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.