New Hampshire star’s long-awaited second sneaks into UK shops
Given the popular resurgence of the sensitive male songwriter, Ray LaMontagne is a rogue trader. Scruffily bearded, press-shy and dealing in themes that are hardly the stuff of snuggling lovers, his current standing in Britain as housewives’ choice is a wholly unexpected victory, especially given the competition. Far from the Blunts and Morrisons, LaMontagne’s comforts are much colder. Yet this summer’s relaunch of 2004 debut Trouble – an Uncut favourite – has seen him fixed in the UK top ten, just as he started packing major venues back home.
This follow-up seems like a wary reaction to all that. Reunited with producer Ethan Johns (best known for his work with Ryan Adams), LaMontagne is clearly intent on tending his own furrow. Whereas Trouble was country-blues stripped bare, Till The Sun… has far more texture, making use of strings, swampy guitars and Memphis horns. Opener “Be Here Now” derives mournful pleasure from banks of violins, cello and bowed bass, further dampened by Johns’ fat-raindrop piano. “Empty” is equally beautiful, LaMontagne at his most crestfallen. There’s a touch of Ted Hawkins about the tattered-soul voice, too. He’s never sounded bleaker: “There’s a lot of things that can kill a man/ There’s a lot of ways to die/Yes, and some already did/And walk beside me.” Can you imagine Daniel Powter singing that?
It’s not quite all despair. The homesick “Three More Days” is an upbeat slice of Southern soul, jumping to Wurlitzer piano and trumpet. The circular riff of “You Can Bring Me Flowers” sounds like a funky JJ Cale. Anti-war song “Within You” is a surprising burst of Beatlesy orch-pop.
For all these diversions, though, LaMontagne has a tendency to plod. “Can I Stay” and “Barfly”, for example, nudge the bearable limits of the pained-man-with-acoustic-guitar syndrome. His paymasters might also be frustrated that Till The Sun… doesn’t boast an obvious hit in the way that Trouble was blessed with its title track. But in a strange way, that only enhances the appeal of this ultimately brave and rewarding record .