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When last we left Ray LaMontagne, we were still calling him Raycharles, but that apparently got a bit cumbersome. The nameís Ray now. Thatís what everyone always called him anyway. And, last time around, Ray was living in a cabin in the woods ó off the grid, as they say ó with his wife and two kids, even though heíd just landed a publishing deal with Chrysalis. The publishers wanted to fly him to California to make an album, though. Theyíd shop it around.
Well, the good news is that Ray and the family had to leave the cabin in the woods. See, Ray got himself a record deal (well, two actually, one in the US and one in England). Unfortunately, said deals meant a lot of touring and being away from Maine.
"Living at the cabin is a total team effort," says LaMontagne, "and if somebody isnít there . . ." He trails off. Weíre in the Farmington House of Pizza, not far from the Wilton house where the LaMontagnes have moved a little closer to your regular society.
"I just said, ĎBefore things get too crazy, we have to make things more sane for everyone.í " When Ray leaves for his West Coast tour with Badly Drawn Boy, for instance, itís going to be getting pretty cold at night. That means firing up the woodstove at the cabin, sure. But it also means hot showers ainít easy.
"So, did you go all out?" I ask. "Did you get cable?"
"Oh, no!" he says. "We donít even use the lights!"
With Ray, you believe it. Heís sitting across from me in the molded booth, his light brown eyes hard to miss under a crop of dark-brown hair, matted down from his motorcycle helmet. I think maybe he drives an old BMW, but it turns out heís bought a Russian military cycle, with sidecar (for the gunner, you know). The back axles are hitched, though, so itís really like a three-wheeler.
"You can take it anywhere," Ray says happily.
Heís dressed, too, all in a military-green suit of sorts ó a bit like Castro wears ó so I imagine him riding along like heís straight out of a John Wayne war movie. Heís out of some movie, anyway. In fact, I want him to get really famous just so someone will make a movie of his life and I can watch it.
Iíd especially like to watch the part where Ray hooked up with producer and now-friend Ethan Johns at Chrysalisís behest. Because working with Johns is like working with Sonic Youthís Jim OíRourke for Jeff Tweedy of Wilco: Johns becomes part of the band, part of the album, playing (with Ray, anyway) more instruments than the artist himself, riffing off the songwriter like a one-man pop-rock orchestra reading a living score.
The Jayhawks employed Johns for last yearís Rainy Day Music, a pretty good success for them, with play all over triple-A radio. All Johns played on that album was acoustic and electric guitar, drums, chamberlain, harmonium, pump organ, piano, and the dulcimer (obviously). And, as a Jayhawks fan, Iíd say Johns helped them make the album theyíd always wanted to make, super-poppy and full of the beautiful melodies and harmonies that have won them fans.
I saw one critic say that all the Jayhawks did was trot out old Crosby, Still, and Nash harmonies. Yeah, like thatís an easy thing to do.
With LaMontagne, Johns has taken an almost-always solo performer and given him a full-band sound for his 10-song RCA debut, Trouble. Itís not the first time Rayís had recorded band backing. Local TJ McNaboe hooked Ray up with guitarist Nick Goodale (Jeremiah Freed) and drummer Tony McNaboe (he played for Rustic Overtones before doing his solo soul thing) and producer Jon Wyman over at Big Sound for a killer demo session that Iíve personally been listening to for more than a year.
Honestly, they could have just released that session. And, for my money, they could have just released an album of Ray and his guitar. His voice and songwriting are that good.
But, as LaMontagne says, "Itís like a painting: You donít want to use just one color." And he canít say enough good things about his collaboration with Johns. "We talked about everything," he says of the decision-making process. Then he looks at me like he knows what heís about to say isnít exactly profound: "Ethanís really great. Just a great guy."
Things Johns does particularly great: drums. Not only did Johns bring LaMontagne to Sunset Sound in LA, the studio where Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones captured some of their best albums (and where the Vines and Jet recently recorded, looking for vintage sound), but Johns is something of a minimalist, and made the famous echo chambers there work for him.
He records the drums with exactly one mic. "I just sat there playing across from him," says LaMontagne, "and stuff just bled across." Thus, you get these open and inviting songs like "Burn" (taken straight from their first demo session with the song) that sound like Rayís singing in a church: "Oh mama, donít leave me home/ In my soul shut down so tight/ Just like a storm." Itís short, like it should be, and almost totally stripped down.
Just like "Hold You in My Arms," which Ray picks out as a song that he thinks is just about perfect as itís been recorded. Itís two guitars, drums, and some string arrangements. Lovely are the single plucked notes that introduce the melody, so relaxed, just like Ray.
Most importantly, Johns emphasizes the way LaMontagne bends and shapes the words in a verse like "now we see how it is/ This fist against this spear/ Weapons of war, symptoms of madness/ Donít let your eyes refuse to see/ Donít let your ears refuse to hear/ You ainít never going to shake this sense of sadness."
With a talent like Rayís, a producer needs most to be like a good referee: someone you donít notice that much. Johns succeeds in this about 95 percent of the time. I think the bass line in "Trouble" is a little too bouncy, maybe. In "Narrow Escape," I think the harmonica gets a bit swallowed by the drums. "Forever My Friend" sounds a tad too much like Ray doing a collaboration with Jimmy Buffet and Seals and Croft.
But the important part is that Rayís happy. Heís the one whoís dream is being realized here. "He just adds those extra colors," says LaMontagne, "that for me just complete the songs. I wouldnít be happy with an album of just me and the guitar, at least not with these songs."
Maybe because that would have meant not working with Nickel Creekís Sarah Watkins. "We had gone to one of their shows," says Ray, "and Ethan and I sat in." Thatís another thing Ethan Johns can do for you: Make introductions (Jakob Dylan and Matthew Sweet both sang backup for the Jayhawks). "He asked her to come and play on a couple songs, and we recorded them just like that. Two takes: beautiful. Itís not like it takes her more than one take."
And so you get the unforgettable "Hannah," with Johnsís piano chords a wonderful foundation for Watkinsís fiddle layered gently over top. "I lost all of my vanity, when I fell into the room," sings LaMontagne, "I lost all of my innocence when I fell in love with you."
Best is the chorus, just desperate and dying: "Come to me Hannah/ Hannah wonít you come home to me [drawn out like he canít imagine life without her]/ Iíll lay down this bottle of wine/ If youíll just be kind to me." Watkins chimes in with some backing vocals here that are as warm as the fiddle tone that Johns has captured.
Yes, Johns has been kind to Ray, and LaMontagne has entered this major-label thing with eyes wide open, thatís for sure. He talks about his "team" of label and promo guys by saying things like, "these guys are just cool enough," and heís determined to make their investment in him pay dividends by touring as much as he can, even though it kills him to be away from his family.
"Has anybody made such a fool out of you?" he asks during a superior vocal performance on "Shelter." Ray LaMontagne doesnít have to worry about anyone making a fool out of him.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at email@example.com
Ray LaMontagneís Trouble is available at local record stores Sept. 14.
Issue Date: September 10 - 16, 2004
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