Ray LaMontagne - Supernova
A collaboration with The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach results in a new sound for the Nebraska singer-songwriter
By far the most ‘produced’ Ray LaMontagne album to date, Supernova is bound to divide opinion among fans of the singer’s alt-country-tinged back catalogue. While LaMontagne’s lyrical style is generally as introspective and tender as ever, producer Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys has seemingly dropped the songs into a vat of 60s folk-rock, pop and psychedelia. Layers of bittersweet vocal harmonies, expansive spring reverb, ethereal effect-laden organs and 60s spangly electric guitar all contribute to a wholly new sound for the Nebraska singer-songwriter.
Some more traditional LaMontagne sounds do creep through however – 'Ojai' could happily have fitted on 2010’s excellent God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise, with its lonesome lyrics and crying lap steel accompaniment. Similarly, 'Drive-In Movies' could stand alongside any song from Gossip in the Grain or even his debut album Trouble, such are the consistencies of lyrical themes (bygone times and younger days) and sound (easy flowing country-blues).
The title track and first single is perhaps the best example of how Auerbach has influenced what could have been a down-the-middle LaMontagne release. The singer’s trademark powerful-yet-whispering vocals and strummy acoustic guitar are accented by distant echoes, 60s-pop-rock staccato organ sounds, rambling guitar lines and a tinkling glockenspiel. While these serve to embellish the song and bring it into line with the overall sound of the album, they do sound a tad contrived.
Beyond this lightly-seasoned approach, the rest of the album delves deeper into the 1960s and early 70s, and as such risks further contrivance. The main culprits are 'Lavender', 'No Other Way' and 'Pick Up A Gun', which have a distinct flavour of Buffalo Springfield, 'Wooden Ships'-era Crosby, Stills & Nash and The Mamas & the Papas. The musicality, writing and performances on show are all stellar, as expected; the quality here simply sit at odds with the overtly-retro production. Stripped back versions would certainly not go amiss on a future release.
It is perhaps testament to Dan Auerbach’s skill as a producer and as a musician that some of this record’s best moments feature his personal touch. 'She’s the One' and 'Julia' are catchy, grinding blues/rock mini-anthems smattered with octave-effect guitar and pounding drums. Either could happily form part of a future Black Keys release with Auerbach on vocals; LaMontagne has clearly chosen his producer with certain sounds in mind. Arguably, these songs are where the two artists have collaborated most successfully.
For existing fans, this album may represent an unwelcome and slightly impure vehicle for Ray LaMontagne’s undeniable talents and enigmatic voice – especially when compared to the award-winning God Willin’. Outwith the context of his previous releases, however, the record presents itself as easily listenable, beautifully written and interestingly arranged, albeit with a strongly retrospective flavour.