[1 December 2005]
Astral Weeks was one hell of a record. Lester Bangs worshipped it, but your mom probably does too, which is something you just can’t say about many albums. Although perhaps Van Morrison is still best known for the wedding reception and classic rock radio fodder of “Brown Eyed Girl”, none of his albums stand up to the sheer beauty of his 1968 classic. Alas, he’s getting old. His recent material, while certainly not horrible, just doesn’t stand up to records like the aforementioned and Tupelo Honey. This is oftentimes to be assumed, though. We’ll gladly let him fade slowly into the golden land of singer-songwriters, won’t we? After all, we owe him for the piles of great tunes. And besides, we’ve got Ray LaMontagne.
Long winded explanations aside, calling the young LaMontagne the “modern day Van Morrison” is obviously hyperbolic and a bit silly really, but listening to his debut album, Trouble, it’s easy to see how the overstatement gets placed on the songwriter’s shoulders. On the opening, title track, LaMontagne repeats the world “trouble” in a slow, world-weary way that one can’t help but think of Morrison’s trademark wordplay. “Hold You in My Arms” similarly echoes the romantic sentiment of Morrison’s “Sweet Thing”. Through acoustic guitar, breathy vocals, and often prominent bass, LaMontagne does indeed strongly evoke the old Irish master’s work.
But is that all there is to LaMontagne? Not really, but his best tunes are the ones that sound like updated versions of Morrison outtakes. On “Forever My Friend”, LaMontagne picks up the pace a bit, seemingly striving to place a bubblier pop number amidst a collection of beautiful, sad bastard music. Unfortunately, in his cheerier moments like this one, the material doesn’t shine as much. In such instances, it’s easier to compare him to the increasingly mediocre output of John Mayer. Luckily, these moments are fairly rare on Trouble.
Aiding LaMontagne in no small way throughout the album is an excellent cast of musical contributors. Producer Ethan Johns lends his percussion, piano, and additional guitar and bass work and a five-piece string section peppers some of Trouble‘s best tracks. Additionally, Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins plays fiddle and sings backing vocals on the contemplative “Hannah”. While in many situations, this kind of musical fleshing out will dilute a talented songwriter’s work, the accompaniment here agreeably gels with LaMontagne’s vision.
Based on this natural talent alone, LaMontagne probably has quite a future ahead of him. Likely his legend won’t inflate to that of Morrison’s, but if his current nation-combing tour is any indication, he’ll be doing all right for a while. The fun part will be seeing what’s next. He’s got the solid debut under his belt—now comes the tricky part of building on it.