For real, I can be such a girl sometimes. I like to think I am this post-punk juggernaut, embracing icy conceptualism and rugged architectural severity and slapdash explosion poetry as my lightning-flash bible. I will get myself worked up in a rut of some sever art or music, alienating myself from the world of what you lowly people listen to and dare to call "music" and all but shut myself off in cave with a broken walkman and a floodlamp so I can be alone in Platonic splendour with my precious little fucking Truth, and then something will slip itself in of such classic quality, that I am dumbstruck, remembering that music is not about the mind and the backbone, but the heart and the soul. Here I was late at night, noodling my guitar though my slapdash effects array trying to achieve some sort of rickety levitation, and I look at the muted TV and see a lunky hunky figure with sad eyes and a thick scraggly beard and an acoustic guitar, and a double bass player next to him, occupying the familiar stage of Austin City Limits, putting the audience in a trance. I turned up the volume and for the next half hour, I joined them in that trance. For at least half an hour, I was totally in love with Ray LaMontagne.
His debut album Trouble hearkens back to the golden era of singer-songwriters, where the sound hung heavy in the air like a haze, strings were involved in a needed shading capacity, but it was all in support of a Voice. One that bore the struggle of being alive, of getting dumped and dumping someone, of thinking about ending it all and rising from that to do it all again. Ryan Adams had some promise to be that guy for our generation on Heartbreaker, but he lost his way, or found a new one, however you look at it. Not sure where Richard Buckner is, so Ray laMontagne is it. His voice is a hoarse falsetto almost, with perfect guitar strumming, impeccable supporting percussion and the wooden creak of the double bass. 30 seconds into the title track and you will be spellbound. "Shelter" continues down this sepia-toned path of redemption, begging that eternal woman, that eternal forgiveness we all beg for. Its is transcendent aching stuff. The lyrics don't even bear reprinting, because its all in how he sings them, how he bleeds them onto tape that make it happen. The pace slowly picks up with some hand claps and maracas on "Hold You in My Arms" and even incrementally more on "Narrow Escape", but it never gets loud enough to mask the beating of his broken heart. It comes back down to bottom soil on "Burn" where some classic reverb transmits this tale of loss from the barstool where it was most likely penned.
Let me hype the production one more time. With Ethan Jones' touch, the same that made the Jayhawks and Ryan Adams glow like they did, Ray sounds so fragile here that he might just crumble in your hands. This even surpasses the M. Ward album of earlier this year for creating atmosphere that will leave its taste in your mouth. Forever My Friend" sounds like the start to side two, for those that remember the significance of a side two. It soars and drifts in the wind until it is grounded by the piano scorcher "Hannah."
I lost all of my vanity
when I peered into the pool
I lost all of my innocence
When I fell in love with you
Like a love you can't shake, even when you know you should shake it, Ray never lets up. Every bittersweet song builds off the last one, making a teetering tower of emotion like that of Townes Van Zandt, like Leonard Cohen before he discovered synthesizers. Unlike most of the stuff I and other critics put up on lofty pedestals, Ray LaMontagne is really that good. Things get rocking for a minute on "How Come" before the fall of "Jolene" comes in. Its must have been hard enough being a Jolene with the Dolly Parton scorcher trailing you like the Police does ever Roxanne in the world, but this ember ups the burden on that name. The final pastoral sunset comes with the strings in "All the Wild Horses" to close out this heartbreaker, but it doesn't matter, because you will most likely leave this on repeat until you can't take it anymore. A real find, this album is, get hip to Ray LaMontagne before the rest of the world does.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com