Ray LaMontagne is arguably part of the current wave of talented, root-rock artists who are thriving in a commercial atmosphere where many fans are seeking a respite from digitized percussion, Auto-tuned voices, and cold synth atmospheres. LaMontagne released his first major label record in 2004 and had success: an appearance on the rootsy launching pad Austin City Limits and 500,000 in record sales. Releases followed every two years until 2010. Gossip in the Grain from 2008 featured “You Are the Best Thing”, which showed up in a movie and television show, and you started hearing LaMontagne’s name all over the place.
Which makes sense. LaMontagne is not drawing on folk or bluegrass in an O, Brother Where Art Thou way. His hero is Stephen Stills, not Bill Monroe. His music sounds like classic rock — the gentle and soulful groove that spans strummed acoustic guitars to a vocal style mimicking a thinner, airy Van Morrison. A song like “Night Moves” might sound at home on the new Supernova, which was produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach.
This new LaMontagne recording is savvy and interesting. It rarely sounds like roots rock. It’s not the Old 97s or the Jayhawks, Uncle Tupelo or even the Avett Brothers. On Supernova the sound is not so much Stephen Stills or Van Morrison as it is the Byrds or even Jefferson Airplane. LaMontagne is playing a hiply updated look on folk-pyschedelia. Jerry Garcia with a more soulful voice? No. Wilco with a CSN obsession? Maybe.
Plenty of the songs here are reverb-rich, triply west coast rock with a lazy, pleasant demeanor. The opener, “Lavendar”, sounds for all the world like a Summer of Love meditation, a snappy groove that combines strummy acoustic guitar, some fretboard twang, a thrumming organ, and vocals that describe a world “under a lavender sky” in echoing whisper. “She’s the One” rocks its opening figure and lets LaMontagne get raspier on the staccato verse, but the chorus line is also awash in echoed, chorused vocals that ring in unison with a chiming, ‘60s-style guitar. “Pick Up a Gun” has a more up-to-date instrumental sound — a fuzzy, dub bass line that eventually cedes its attention to a . . . trippy guitar (or is it a sitar?) solo. Once the vocals enter, you feel like you’re stuck in a hazy Pink Flord exercise. Maybe it’s the early ‘70s now rather than the ‘60s, but you get the idea.
On other tracks the relevant comparison ought to be to the kind of loping Californa folk-rock that we associate with the Eagles of the 1970s. You listen to “Ojai” and its references to “hitching a ride” down some highway and you know you’re in nostalgic territory, with the loping bass figure and the Jackson Browne ache in the melody. “Airwaves” rides on a popping little figure and four quick chords that lets LaMontagne do his best throaty-whisper version of Irish Van the Man. So, yes, a whole bunch of Supernova is set about a decade past the ‘60s, but just barely.
So, is LaMontagne little more than an unoriginal folk-rock troubadour? That critique goes way too far. The songs are fanciful and intriguing. “Smashing” uses the sonic elements of the ‘60s and ‘70s, sure, but there’s more. The little details of the instrumental tracks are rife with hip touches: rumbles and rattles, squeaks from the high strings of a guitar, oddly processed keyboard sounds, and lots more. “Drive-In Movies” tells a cool story of small town life, topped with a ripe and sweet pre-chorus and chorus that would fit on just about any hit song you like. The small details are great: a yearning, broken-down bridge that eventually leads to a moment where the songwriter is alluding to a classic Dylan song.
My favorite track here is the throbbing “Julia”, which keeps the rhythm moving with an almost martial attention to a groove but the floating vocal parts that are LaMontagne’s forte. “No Other Way” sounds like a country classic at first, a midtempo, dreamy meditation that splits the difference between Dylan’s New Morning and Brian Wilson vocal arrangement. These songs are treats, and they have an original way of mixing and matching elements that belong together.
Why shouldn’t an artist in the new millennium reach back to a golden age of popular music and cull some its best elements? Why not channel voices as sweet and fine as Stills’ or Morrison’s? Why shouldn’t Bob Dylan float over a gauzy cloud of sound, bathed in a chill or new century production? Why should roots-rock-folk have to sound so old or so rootsy anyway?
LaMontagne thread his needle through many styles, mostly good ones. The result might just lull you into tomorrow.