Ray LaMontagne worked in a shoe factory in Maine. One morning he was woken by his alarm at 4am for work. The alarm clock’s radio served up Stephen Stills’ ‘Treetop Flyer’. At that instant, LaMontagne decided to become a musician. It took him more than a decade from this epiphany to record his debut – he worked as a carpenter and lived off the grid.
LaMontagne told American Songwriter he was inspired by Neil Young, Crosby, Stills and Nash, tons of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, The Grateful Dead, The Band, “all the mainstays I guess”.
LaMontagne’s husky whisper is likeable and distinctive – it’s created by singing through his gut rather than his nose. Much of his work is mellow folk-country, but he’s often most interesting when he ventures outside of this. His work seems full of heartbreak, with song titles like ‘This Love Is Over’, but he’s actually been married long-term – his wife is a published poet.
Ray LaMontagne Album Reviews
Trouble | Till the Sun Turns Black | Gossip in the Grain | God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise | Supernova | Ouroboros | Part of the Light | Monovision
LaMontagne resolved to become a musician at the age of 20, but it took more than a decade to make his first record. LaMontagne worked with producer Ethan Johns, son of Glyn Johns, who also collaborated with Ryan Adams in the same era. Johns was asked to produce demos for LaMontagne; he disobeyed orders, quickly recording a full-fledged album. The pair played most of the instruments themselves, with Johns on drums. Guest include Nickel Creek fiddler Sara Watkins, as well as Jennifer Stills, daughter of LaMontagne’s original inspiration.
When LaMontagne made his debut record, he’d been building a cabin without electricity, and the only music he could listen to was his own. Trouble captures a smoky, late-night feel more than any of LaMontagne’s other records, but it also feels one-dimensional, not surprisingly for a quickly-made record from a debutant. As is often the case for LaMontagne, his most extreme material is his most enjoyable. ‘Forever My Friend’ stands out for its upbeat nature, while ‘Jolene’ and ‘Burn’ are the album’s most anguished songs.
Trouble is a worthy debut, but it’s a little too one-note for me to return to it often.
Till The Sun Turns Black
LaMontagne’s first album was surprisingly successful, but his second is a stronger artistic statement. He’s back with Ethan Johns, who helps to expand his range. The debut stuck to late-night, country-folk songs with simple arrangements. Till the Sun Turns Black is more ambitious, taking in everything from funk to grandly orchestrated ballads.
The opening track, ‘Be Here Now’, is slow-paced. Yet it’s more ornate than anything on the debut, with strings and piano filling out the sound. Lead single ‘Three More Days’ successfully sets LaMontagne’s quivering voice against a funk groove, with John Medeski guesting on Wurlitzer. He can still write straightforward country-funk tunes like ‘Empty’ and ‘Gone Away From Me’. ‘Within You’ is essentially a lengthy coda to the title track, forming a ten-minute suite to gracefully close the record.
Till The Sun Turns Black is a gorgeous sophomore album from LaMontagne, exploring a wider range of moods than his debut.
Gossip in the Grain
LaMontagne’s third album is again recorded with Ethan Johns, this time in England. It’s his least coherent album yet, employing a full band in places to complement his more typical sparse arrangements. There’s the first inkling of a sense of humour on ‘Meg White’, a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the White Stripes’ drummer. It feels less weighty than before, but it has enough strong tunes to make for an enjoyable record.
As always, LaMontagne is most enjoyable outside his hushed country-folk comfort zone. ‘You Are The Best Thing’ is upbeat R&B, coloured by horns. It’s also fun hearing LaMontagne lean into a more rootsy style – ‘Hey Me, Hey Mama’ recalls The Band’s rave-ups like ‘Rag Mama Rag’. ‘I Still Care For You’ is one of LaMontagne’s most beautiful melodies, amplified by the pastoral imagery in the verses.
Gossip in the Grain feels less substantial than before, partly due to its piecemeal nature. Yet LaMontagne’s songwriting shines in its more relaxed setting.
God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise
It’s easy to get cynical about LaMontagne’s sensitive songs. When you’re not in the right mood, he can feel one-dimensional. But today, on a grim and rainy day, God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise hit me just right, the perfect accompaniment for La Montagne’s autumnal music. It’s not all sensitive and introspective LaMontagne – God Willin’ is bookended by two upbeat songs, the funky ‘Repo Man’ and the bluesy ‘Devil’s in the Jukebox’. LaMontagne credits his backing band, The Pariah Dogs, on the cover. They include drummer Jay Bellerose, bassist Jennifer Condos, and multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz.
‘Repo Man’ is my favourite track here, but there’s lots of good writing, even though it’s in familiar territory for LaMontagne. It’s possible he’s outworn his lovelorn schtick on songs like ‘This Love Is Over’. He’s seemingly much closer to autobiography on the pretty ‘For the Summer’ – “Can I come home for the summer?/I could slow down for a little while/Get back to loving each other/Leave all those long and lonesome miles behind.” The sparse harmonica introduction in ‘Like Rock & Roll and Radio’ could have come straight from one of Neil Young’s gentler albums.
LaMontagne isn’t deviating far from his formula on God Willin’, but it’s enjoyably tuneful anyway.
10 Best Ray LaMontagne Songs
Three More Days
I Still Care For You
Til The Sun Turns Black/Within You
Such a Simple Thing
Forever My Friend
Be Here Now
You Are The Best Thing
For the Summer
More from Aphoristic Album Reviews
Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
Read about the discographies of musical acts from the 1960s to the present day. Browse this site's review archives or enjoy these random selections:
I add new blog posts to this website every week. Browse the archives or enjoy these random selections: