Review: Ray LaMontagne – “Till The Sun Turns Black”

I’d been listening to Ray LaMontagne’s latest CD for a day or two before I discovered its ideal setting. As I was driving through mostly empty pre-dawn streets on my way to the gym, the lush, ethereal sound of track one, “Be Here Now,” was the perfect soundtrack for the impending sunrise. LaMontagne’s quiet and almost breathless vocal is reminiscent of Nick Drake’s on “Pink Moon.” It is both intimate and haunting.

I can’t say the album is recommended listening for a high-energy workout, but it is great for relaxing.
“Till The Sun Turns Black” is Ray LaMontagne’s sophomore effort… a new collection of introspective songs to follow-up his modestly successful 2004 debut. His laid back, soulful style invites favorable comparison to ‘70s storytellers like Harry Chapin and Cat Stevens, while also earning him a place alongside adult alternative contemporaries like Jack Johnson, Ben Harper and John Mayer.

Mainstream America may not yet know LaMontagne’s name, but millions unknowingly heard one of his songs when American Idol winner Taylor Hicks performed the title track from “Trouble” last season. No doubt Hicks’ favorite song on the new album is “Three More Days,” a classic, sexy R&B groove even Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett would have been proud to sing. The backing horn section is complimented by Billy Preston inspired electric piano licks courtesy John Medeski of Medeski, Martin and Wood, and Dusty Springfield flavored electric guitar accents by producer Ethan Johns.

Two songs later, “You Can Bring Me Flowers” revisits that mode musically, but the lyrical sentiment suggests the more embittered condition “…when I’m dead and gone.”

For the most part though, the album maintains a consistently mellow vibe that flows naturally from track to track. The tempo builds gently from the opening, through the Cat Stevens-esque “Empty” and “Barfly,” until the mid-tempo “Three More Days” sounds downright rockin’. Meanwhile, “Gone Away From Me” feels like an Irish folk song as interpreted by a Slip Slidin’ Paul Simon.

If we were talking about an LP (remember vinyl?), I’d describe how “Till The Sun’s” two album sides conclude with Lennon-McCartney inspired tracks. Actually, the songs are more akin to the solo work of the former Beatles. “Can I Stay,” which ends the record’s hypothetical Side A, would just as easily have fit on Paul McCartney’s most recent album. Later, the album-closing “Within You” channels John Lennon with a lyrical re-imagining of “Give Peace A Chance”:

“War is not the answer.
The answer is within you.

While the song’s message may be apropos to the climate of political division in America today, there’s no denying that this album’s heart is rooted in an era decades past. It has a refreshingly simple sound, and a coffeehouse vocal style that draws the listener in rather than trying to be “in your face.” Consider “Till The Sun Turns Black” an undiscovered gem from 1974… the year Ray LaMontagne was born. Sure, it was written and recorded in 2006, but your ears won’t know the difference!


This review originally appeared in the November 2006 issue of TC Style magazine