Ray LaMontagne | Monovision | (RCA)
4 out of 5 stars
Now that singer/songwriter Ray LaMontagne has gotten the space rock of his previous two releases out of his system, it’s back to basics on studio album number eight. He strips the sound back, way back, on this entirely solo recording. The tactic is implied by its Monovision (pre-order) title and emphasized by the old-school reel-to-reel tape recorder that adorns the cover.
Montagne taps into his inner Tim Buckley, Cat Stevens, early Neil Young and Van Morrison on the often hushed, folk-soul of these ten tracks. Perhaps he is looking to win back fans that might have jumped ship on his releases from the past few years; music that found him pushing, generally successfully, outside of the softer, gentler sound that initially attracted his substantial audience.
Barely there percussion, harmonica, acoustic guitar and of course LaMontagne’s supple, slightly grainy vocals are overdubbed to create lovely, even delicate songs that feel like they were recorded in the early seventies folk-pop explosion. Titles like “Highway to the Sun,” “Summer Clouds” and “Weeping Willow” are further influenced by the Donovan songbook.
Most of the material stays rooted in a muted, laid back, and subtle yet exquisitely arranged groove. Lyrically things follow suit as the singer/songwriter looks at love from both sides now, as on the bittersweet “We’ll Make it Through.” He delivers the romantic musings of “Morning Comes Wearing Diamonds” (a very Donovan-like concept too) as he sings “Morning comes wearing diamonds/There she is, her eyes are smiling/Throwing gold through the windows to the floor/I hear a bird singing a song I’ve never heard before” with such sweet sincerity, it will melt the heart of the most stoic listener.
The slight country lilt to the soft opening “Roll Me Mama Roll Me” is broken by LaMontagne’s husky, soulful voice. Only “Strong Enough” comes close to rocking out with a bluesy strut that approximates JJ Cale’s mid-tempo roll. And even when the lyrics border on cliché as in “I Was Born to Love You”’s “I could sing you a song, play you a tune/I know it’s just a little thing, but it’s something I can do,” LaMontagne’s confident sense of melody and sensitive but never schlocky vocals are so lithe, understated and well, charming, that you’ll just go with it. On “Misty Morning Rain,” LaMontagne refers back to Morrison’s Astral Weeks, infusing a jazzy improvisational approach, adding lightly thumping percussion and an acoustic guitar solo. You can trace a direct line to Young’s Harvest on “Rocky Mountain Healin’,” especially in LaMontagne’s quivering harmonica sound.
There’s soothing, but never clichéd warmth in this retro-style. Both LaMontagne’s craftsmanship in the composition of these songs and his easygoing, unaccompanied playing will come as comfort food to established followers who should welcome this most organic return to his roots.
Photo by Brian Stowell Photos