Ray LaMontagne has done a great job of staying just under the radar. His debut album, Trouble, was a bare-bones gem of Americana-tinged folk that snuck its way on to many critics’ “Best Of ” lists for 2004 and sold 250,000 copies with barely any press or promotion. While the outpouring of accolades and the influx of fans from this release would assume a more public role for LaMontagne, he prefers to remain safely tucked away with his family in a cabin somewhere in Maine … the exact location, like other personal details, he refuses to divulge to the press. Interviews are few and far between, appearances and performances typically an awkward reflection of how uncomfortable the artist is in any sort of public spotlight. In his short career, LaMontagne already has a solid track record as a more challenging interview subject and his shyness has often forced him to perform only once the house lights have been turned out. But then there are the songs that he writes: intimate and honest expressions of that shyness and restlessness, tender musings and torn pleadings on those themes. Trouble introduced audiences to an artist who insists on approaching his songwriting as a true craftsman, creating softly tormented songs that are at once beautiful and bitter. With this formula proving so successful for LaMontagne, one would expect to see more of the same on his sophomore release, but it’s not Trouble Part Two that we’re given.
A second pairing with acclaimed producer Ethan Johns (Rufus Wainwright, Ryan Adams, Kings of Leon) on Till the Sun Turns Black has deliberately brought about a distinctly different feel from LaMontagne’s debut. Johns was eager to steer the project away from the Americana-bluesy feel of their first collaboration and essentially what this seems to mean for this latest release is the refusal to pair just Ray’s voice with his guitar anymore. Instead, there are countless string sections that appear, imposing horn routines throughout the record, and even a distracting flute solo. It’s a nice intention, encouraging artistic growth and experimentation. The intention comes at an unfortunate price in this case, since it was precisely the bare-bones showcase of the debut album that translated LaMontagne’s poignant and sometimes painful lyrics so beautifully. Frankly, the artist’s voice gets lost here among the brass acrobatics, and is particularly hard to even make out in the first couple of tracks, where LaMontagne sings at barely more than a whisper.
The album’s second song, “Empty”, wonders “Will I always feel this way—so empty and estranged?”. Intentionally or not, it’s a question that foreshadows what listeners can expect from the rest of the album: wallowing themes of emptiness, alienation, and restlessness, but LaMontagne’s voice fills each song with a warmth that entirely contradicts the bleak subject matter. Just like on Trouble, the sincerity of LaMontagne’s songwriting is a uniquely powerful force. It’s unfortunate that the message this time gets complicated with odd and unnecessary additions like ‘70s-style horn arrangements. Nowhere is the unnecessary excess more obvious than on the Joe Cocker-esque “Three More Days”, where LaMontagne’s raspy wail sits atop a background of soulful horns, bluesy drums, and an incessantly groovy organ. It’s way too much. The experimentation is far more successful on tracks like “Can I Stay” and “Gone Away from Me”, where the inclusion of strings accents, subtle horn arrangements, and even ukulele are far more appropriate matches with the artist’s songwriting style, and the vocals are finally turned up beyond a whisper.
You won’t find the sort of fall-out-of-your seat fare on this release that had listeners clamoring for copies of LaMontagne’s debut. The charm of the simplicity of Trouble is far from where Till the Sun Turns Black has headed and some of the power behind the message has been lost along the way. That the strength of the songs and the songwriting is still so obvious is a true testament to this artist’s talent.
// Notes from the Road
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