Ray LaMontagne: Till The Sun Turns Black

Fade to Black

All roads lead back to Ray LaMontagne

Ray LaMontagne is a pretty funny guy. But it’s a subtle humor. Take the 2003 show at the Center for Cultural Exchange (may it RIP), where he gave the crowd a big explanation about how he was working on a tune for Sesame Street.

Would we like to hear it? God, yes, the 75 people in attendance implored. Already he could do virtually no wrong. So, he started to play, reading the lyrics from a legal pad next to him.

“I hate,” he sang, “my fucking job.”

If we were eating out of his hand after a song or two, at this point we probably would have donated to his kids’ college fund.

Which is what LaMontagne’s well on his way to making an afterthought as he releases his second RCA album, following sales of 300,000 copies of his Trouble and more than two straight years of touring the world. Nose to the grindstone, he’s thousands of miles from his wife and family as he tries to make his nut.

If only, after hearing Till the Sun Turns Black, it didn’t seem so much like he hated his fucking job.

A brilliant and moving disc, this new album is charged with a pathos that can’t be an act. LaMontagne is an old soul ill-fit for our modern world, just a few years removed from living off the grid, when the demands of touring forced his family to move closer to society and things like cable television. Planes, security, Guster’s hippy fans, Japanese society—these are the things that leave LaMontagne wondering: “Will I always feel this way / So empty and so estranged?”

That’s the chorus from “Empty,” the album’s second track and a wonderfully shuffling sad cowboy tune (and the only previously released track, having shown up on last year’s Live From Bonnaroo EP). A cello and violin open (there are strings on most every song here, thanks to the production of LaMontagne’s right-hand man, Ethan Johns), then come in a perfectly paired rhythm section of brushed drums and walking stand-up bass. The lyrics are the kind of writing that has made LaMontagne a star, paired with his delivery, an aching exhalation like he’s ripping his chest open in front of you. It feels like gospel, and I don’t mean the musical genre: “I looked my demons in the eyes, said do your best, destroy me / I’ve been to hell and back so many times I must admit you kind of bore me / There’s a lot of ways to kill a man / There’s a lot of ways to die … There’s a lot of things I don’t understand / Why so many people lie.”

Is he a folk-slinging Cobain? Destined to only get more depressed and disappointed by the prospect of getting everything he every wanted?

With LaMontagne, it’s a lot simpler than the pressures of oncoming fame. Rather, I think he’s just homesick, writing songs on the road that come from emotions that would exist even if every flight was first class and every security check came with a red carpet.

The album’s single, “Three More Days,” couldn’t be simpler. The only real rocker here, it’s a Motown send-up, late-career Ray Charles (his namesake), full of big horns putting LaMontagne forward as bandleader and Southern rock guitar that should remind you of last album’s “How Come.”

And the sentiment is just as simple. “Three more days, girl you know I’ll be comin’ home to you darlin,’” LaMontagne emotes at his most impassioned. He’s contrite – “I know it’s wrong to be so far from home” – but he’s practical: “I just gotta get this good job done / So I can bring it on home to you.”

Elsewhere, things are not so cut and dry. The production, Johns playing many of the instruments, often seems unnecessary, like the music that intrudes into movies, telling you how you’re supposed to feel when it ought to be obvious. “Can I Stay,” with a bit of demo-like hiss, is heartbreaking on its own, LaMontange imploring, “Can I stay here with you till the morning / There’s nothing I’d like more than to wake up on your floor.” But his naked emotion is dressed up in descending string progressions.

Similarly, the ukelele (or some other odd-sounding deviation on a guitar) in “Gone Away From Me” makes what could be a distinctive rhythm sound exactly like Hans Zimmer’s instrumental theme to True Romance (full disclosure: My wife called that).

It’s hard not to wonder whether Johns hasn’t become more LaMontagne band member than producer, in a way forsaking the producer’s role of making hard decisions about when too much is just too much. Ray’s a charismatic guy. He wouldn’t be the first to try to make him happy.

Can that be done? You wouldn’t know it from LaMontagne’s first two albums. And though I’m not here to say it’s his job to blow sunshine up your ass, it’s hard not to feel like this album is, yes, blacker than the first. Trouble’s “Hannah,” “Jolene,” and “Shelter” somehow had a hope that’s largely missing here. The title track alone, where LaMontagne picks apart our social structure and finds even the wise man’s lot ultimately hopeless, should be enough to get you reaching for the whiskey.

Still, there is the album’s finisher, “Within You,” that acts as an uplifting coda in the way that “Her Majesty” rejects the irony and bombast of Abbey Road. Built on a gentle strum, with a tambourine for rhythm, LaMontange meditates on a single couplet for about five minutes. “War is not the answer,” he breathes, his vocals as high as Iron & Wine, “The answer is within you.”

Is this politics, or is this a simple acknowledgement that sometimes you just have to take life as it comes? Well, as Wilco sang, when “it’s a war on war / You’re gonna lose.” And I think LaMontagne would agree that “you have to learn how to die.”

Seekonk: Pinkwood

In the Pink

Seekonk’s second is a perfect sculpture of sound

Any group of musicians can get together, ramp up the beats per minute, and impress a crowd of onlookers with a barrage of notes. It’s basically the central tenet of modern bluegrass. But only a finely tuned band can play slowly and keep people interested. That’s much of the explanation for Ocean’s success, and it’s what makes Seekonk their fey equivalent.

On their second album, Pinkwood, Seekonk live up to every inch of their quietest-supergroup-in-Portland reputation. It is a cohesive, expertly played, endearing work of art that gets better each time you play it and, like an oil painting from across the room, reveals more and more with closer inspection.

Listening to this on anything other than headphones borders on abomination. The instruments envelope you in a warm blanket of sound, vocals sometimes so closely mic’d you can hear as many as three vocalists at once open their individual mouths, identifying each by their tongue parting from palate with a pop of saliva. Some of that is thanks to producer Jonathan Wyman, who also turned the knobs on their debut For Barbara Lee (Kimchee Records), but most of the credit has to go to Seekonk’s singular vision for their music, which is uncompromising and distinct (it’s also almost hard to believe considering everyone’s side projects: Satellite Lot, An Evening With and Baltic Sea are top of mind and all excellent).

To practice this stuff, I swear they’d have to live together in a biosphere.

“Love,” “Armstrong,” and “Air,” which open the new album, might have your standard rock fan jumping ship. All three are slow as the dust under your couch, laconic and narcotic, living inside the harmony between Sarah Ramey’s lead vocals and multi-instrumentalists Todd Hutchisen and Dave Noyes’s backing. There’s no shortage of notes, though, with classical guitars mixing with theremin or something played backwards to keep you slightly off balance. The organ that introduces “Armstrong” might remind you of Tree by Leaf’s “Rubert Sheldrake,” but a more appropriate reference might be a song played by a pop band like As Fast As, only at half-time.

“Powerout” is where the album really gets going. Like something off Sonic Youth’s Sonic Nurse, an electric guitar stands at the fore, drums played in traditional rock fashion, and Ramey’s voice has bite to it. “Say I’m faded,” she purrs as part of the chorus like a dare, “say I’m power shutting down.” No, they’re only getting started.

“Mar” follows with digital sound effects that prop up that indie technique of playing two notes on the guitar over and over, then moving elsewhere on the fretboard and playing two different notes over and over. Regardless, things get downright sped up, with Jason Ingalls tapping the high-hat like a kid with restless leg syndrome at a Susan Colllins speech on homeland security. My only disappointment here is the tease that is the distorted guitar, living just below the surface of the song.

The song is like Pinkwood’s a mid-afternoon cup of coffee.

“Take My Wife” follows, the best song on the disc. It enters with a flamenco vibe, the drums kind of rawhide, Ramey talking about seeing your father kill a man in her lowest growl on the album, almost Cowboy Junkies, but not exactly “Ghost of a Texas Ladies Man.” Is this a divorce song? “You’ll remain in this place I call hell.” Still, Ramey is as sexy as I’ve ever heard her when the band cuts out and she breathes at a fast clip: “With this motion in your sleep you must be dreaming.”

At one point in the five-minute tune, the mood darkens further and what seems like the whole band starts in with a chant like something you heard at that KKK meeting in O Brother Where Art Thou?. Something about it couldn’t be more Pat Corrigan, who for me is the band’s energy. It’s straight-up creepy.

So’s the crispness of the transition between the charming and lilting guitars that follow as the start of “Orange & Blue” and the song’s chorus, where Ramey busts out a set of pipes her normal whisper didn’t let you know she had. The chunked guitars, crashing drums, and blaring organ are jarring, but not uncomfortable. No, Seekonk save that feeling for an industrial clanging that makes up the bridge.

Finally on the near perfectly programmed 40-minute disc, “The Great Compromise” serves as a kiss goodbye. It’s a bossa nova, a la Getz’s “Girl from Ipanema,” and a song you could easily play 100 times in a row and not get sick of. One would wonder if it was an offshoot of Noyes’s time in Dulce de Leche if one wasn’t picturing Ramey in a red sequined dress and a lot of big hair.

They’re cinematic as a band, with big panning shots and tight direction. Pinkwood is a place you can see as much as hear.