Ray LaMontagne is from Lewiston, Maine.
I have mentioned this before, but I’m not sure I mentioned the fact that I was living in Portland, Maine while he was coming up as a singer/songwriter. LaMontagne played his first shows around the southern Maine area in 1999. I left at the end of summer 2000. That means I probably had more than a few chances to see him perform right in my own back yard. But I never did.
Four years after I left Maine, LaMontagne released Trouble, his absolutely delightful debut album. He got the chance to record it after a label exec discovered him at a Maine music festival. Because Maine is awesome, and has a music scene greater than anyone would believe. Even so, I don’t think I ever saw anyone quite like Ray LaMontagne during my sojourn in the pine tree state. He’s part Joe Cocker, singing from his gut and putting every ounce of himself into his songs. But his voice also carries with it a rare beauty, and his musical taste is as varied as it is wonderful.
He kept that varied taste under wraps for a while, giving us four records of earthy, soulful folk music. Along the way he crafted one of the most beautiful songs I know (“Be Here Now,” from his second, Till the Sun Turns Black), delivered a wedding staple that will outlive him (“You Are the Best Thing,” from Gossip in the Grain) and made a full-band record with the Pariah Dogs that built on his rustic charm.
But lately he’s been doing everything but what made him famous, and I have to give him respect for it. I still don’t like Supernova, his too-slick fifth record, but the trippy Ouroboros is awesome, and now with Part of the Light, he’s dipped his toe into ‘60s psychedelic folk. This is an album that returns him to more familiar ground in places, but in others, it digs through hidden corners of his record collection and unearths some surprising influences.
Perhaps none is more surprising than the opener, “To the Sea,” which sounds like Nick Drake and Syd Barrett hung out and jammed for five minutes. There’s a child-like yet ages-deep quality to this melody, and when LaMontagne does that ‘60s trick of whispering along to his own vocal line, it’s fascinating. This sounds like he stepped into a time machine and popped back to the paisley-colored past, and I’m surprised at how completely he managed this imitation. I’m not sure where LaMontagne himself can be found in this music, but as a love letter, it’s heartfelt.
Part of the Light doesn’t dive that deeply into this style again, but the Syd-ness colors the entire record. “Paper Man” is a sweet ditty with some very Pink Floyd chord changes, the title track is an absolutely beautiful slice of acoustic balladry, and “It’s Always Been You” is a floating-down-the-river bit of gentleness that comes and goes like a lazy afternoon.
The entire first half is so quiet, so easygoing, that it’s almost a shock when LaMontagne shatters that mood with the big rock intro of “As Black as Blood is Blue.” But this song continues the ‘60s psych feel, turning up the amps for a darker few minutes. He’s adapted the swirl from Ouroboros into something more classic rock here, and it works. It also presages the pitch-black blues of “No Answer Arrives,” an organ-drenched stunner, and the ever-growing seven-minute folk-rock epic “Goodbye Blue Sky” that closes the record. (If you remember that “Goodbye Blue Sky” was also the name of a Pink Floyd song, you win.)
I’ve talked a lot about how Part of the Light fits in with the musical tradition it’s drawing from. What I haven’t really talked about is how lovely the whole thing is. This is another step down an idiosyncratic musical path for LaMontagne, who rarely gets to do his full-throated thing here, but you can tell how focused he was on making the prettiest record he could. Some of this album is so pretty I can barely stand it, and LaMontagne’s singular voice makes it all the sweeter. I could listen to “Let’s Make it Last” on repeat for days and never feel anything but bliss.
It’s that commitment to beauty that gets me, that ensures that I am down for whatever Ray LaMontagne decides to do next. He could work with a kazoo orchestra and I would be there, because I know he would try his very best to turn that into something fragile and lovely and aching and amazing. I missed his club days in the great white north, but I’m certainly not going to miss out on anything else he’s done or will do.
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If you’re looking for the prettiest record of 2018 so far, though, I’m afraid LaMontagne is in second place. The prize goes to another New England treasure, Boston’s Darlingside.
I shamefully cannot remember which of my friends recommended Darlingside to me (UPDATE: It was Alex Caldwell, as he gently reminded me), but I remain eternally grateful. I enjoyed the first couple records quite a bit, but it’s this new one, Extralife, that has grabbed hold of my heart and refuses to let go. I’m not even sure if the members of Darlingside understand how uncommonly gorgeous the music they have made here is.
That music can certainly be termed folk – they’re in the same vein as Girlyman, a band I miss desperately. But it’s the voices that turn this into something magical. The four members of Darlingside all sing, and there’s rarely a moment on this album that is not embraced in glorious, unearthly harmonies. There’s something about the way these voices combine that taps into a well of sadness and joy that I’ve not heard in a while. The songs on Extralife are largely simple things, but sung by these voices, they sound timeless and perfect.
As for those songs, I think “Hold Your Head Up High” might be my favorite, but it changes day to day. That song certainly gets under the skin with its lilting French horn line and its message of positivity in the face of awfulness. But the two before it are equally wonderful. “Singularity” floats effortlessly on a high and lonesome vocal line and some mandolin from Auyon Mukharji, and “Futures” is slightly reminiscent of the chorus of “Happy Together,” but is its own beautiful thing, with its Simon and Garfunkel-esque acoustic figures revolving around the line “it’s not ever too late.”
But wherever you look here, you won’t be disappointed. Even something like “Eschaton,” which starts with jarring carnival sounds, turns into something sweet and pretty. “Lindisfarne” is a warm blanket of a song, wrapping you up tight against the cold. “Indian Orchard Road” brings back that French horn and adds a cello for the full Brian Wilson experience, and its syncopated chorus is tremendous. The album ends with a brief uptick in tempo called “Best of the Best of Times,” and It kind of leaves you on the side of the road while it charges on, but it’s honest in its assessment: “We’re a long way from the best of the best of times.” I can see why they ended with it, but I can also see why they shouldn’t have.
But no matter. It’s great, and the eleven songs before it are great too. I’ve tried to put Extralife down and turn to something else, but its no use. The extraordinary beauty of this record pulls me back in. I was a fan before Extralife, but now I’m in it for life, if not a little extra. You can be a fan too. Check them out at http://www.darlingside.com.
That’s it for this week. Next week, I have no idea. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.