Listen to this track by gravelly-voiced roots rock paragon with a wandering stylistic ear Ray LaMontagne. It’s “Supernova”, the title track and lead single to his newest record (his fifth), which as you may guess is called Supernova. The record was produced by the Black Keys’ guitarist and singer Dan Auerbach.
This song is a reflection of LaMontagne’s love of mid-to-late ’60s guitar pop with a touch of lysergic, echoey production, woozy organ, and plinky-plonky saloon piano that suggests a lot of late nights listening to the Kinks in “See My Friends” mode, post-Pet Sounds Beach Boys, Fifth Dimension-era Byrds, and Odessey and Oracle Zombies.
Maybe this is unexpected from a guy known for his exploration of more country-soul-folk-rock oriented material. But it’s not like this song and the record off of which it comes isn’t connected to all of that even through all of the orange sunshine. It’s got a strong connection to the craft of songwriting well above the ins and outs of genre.
The acoustic guitar and impassioned vocal style with R&B undertones that he’s known for are still in place, too. It’s just that on this track, and on the rest of the album, the stylistic room he’s singing in has paisley wallpaper instead of the rustic wood paneling of his earlier work. No biggie, everyone. But, what’s the motivation?
For one thing, let’s get the word “retro” out of the way. I hate that word when it comes to music, especially in our current era. It’s one of the great things about living in the 21st century; we have the whole of 20th century pop history to choose from, to call our own as music fans, and for musicians like LaMontagne to add to his palette of colours. There’s a love of records of the past to be found here, sure, with a clear connection to classic pop music that evokes more innocent times that is completely appropriate to the material. But after so much time has passed and with an amassed weight of history, it takes a deft hand to deliver a line like “I want you to be my girl” and make it sound like you were the first person ever to say it. That skill is what makes all the difference here.
Also, the decor in the stylistic room of this song gives the statement a certain context, with a distinctly ’60s pop-psych feel. But as we’ve seen so many times before, the rugs, curtains, and lava lamps don’t make the whole swingin’ pad. None of this would come off if the writing wasn’t there, or if the sheer aural presence of the performance wasn’t as strong as it is; LaMontagne is a hell of a singer, which is why he got noticed in the first place with 2004’s Trouble, his debut. That was a record that revealed his love of Woodstock-era rock and gritty soul, along with an ability to write new songs in that vein that are worthy of their inspiration. That’s true here, too. So in this, Supernova isn’t really that much of a departure.
As with all of the albums he’s put out thus far, the sound has been renovated a bit since the last one. But, the original structure is solid even if the decor has been altered. Auerbach’s experience as a musician who has some experience in bashing out back to basics, ’60s-influenced rock music had to have played a part, both as a producer and as a supporting player. Yet despite that boost from a producer who understands the drill where a vintage sound is concerned, there is an enthusiasm that comes through from LaMontagne himself on this track that sounds like a guy who’s come home, not one who’s squatting in someone else’s. That’s what you want from any artist, right? Someone who can explore different avenues while still sounding right at home. In this, it’s the same old homestead even if the colours have changed.
For more information on the new record and about Ray LaMontagne, check out raylamontagne.com.
Thanks to Sony Canada for sending along a download of the album.