A Review of Ray LaMontagne’s Till the Sun Turns Black

lamontagne.jpgAppears in the August 31, 2006 Claremont Eagle Times:

New Hampshire native Ray LaMontagne’s latest release is a sometimes too-deliberate move away from the successful formula that propelled his surprise 2004 hit “Trouble.”

“I never learned to count my blessings/I choose instead to dwell in my disasters,” he reports convincingly in a typical track (“Empty”). The morose cloud never quite lifts from the record, but what “Till the Sun Turns Black” lacks in mood it does make up in musical texture – an element it shares with “Trouble.”

The arrangements, assisted by well-regarded producer Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams, Tift Merritt), are at once meaty and pristine. Johns manages to lift the songs from the lugubrious swamp of LaMontagne’s outlook. Trembling horns frame “You Can Bring Me Flowers” and also lift up the record’s liveliest song (and the disc’s first single),“Three More Days,” a smoldering Otis Redding-styled boogie.

Other tracks employ chamber strings to stark, evocative effect. A Van Morrison inspired dirge, “Gone Away From Me,” is all agony, as LaMontagne’s dark, plaintive whisper of a voice lays his pain raw: “Life is long and love is gone away from me.” The title cut is the record’s best track, with mournful violins draped over an otherwise spare arrangement that’s occasionally punctuated by timpani flourishes. At its’ highest point, LaMontagne simply moans a beautiful singsong as a coda to lyrics examining self-fulfillment.

It’s strong material, but also relentlessly bleak. It makes one long for any hopeful echo from “Trouble.” Perhaps a shadow of the title song’s joyful chorus (“I’ve been saved by a woman”), or the comforting sentiments of “I Could Hold You in My Arms.”

Instead, the listener is drenched in a thunderstorm of sorrow.

The record ends with “Within You,” a funereal anti-war song that never quite ignites a spark. Like the instrumental “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” it’s more an interlude than a complete song.

It’s a characteristic that’s shared with most of the record. “Till the Sun Turns Black” finds LaMontagne trying too hard to distance himself from his artistic past. Every buoyant moment of “Trouble” has been replaced with gnawing emptiness – and, unfortunately, confusion.

It’s a great record for anyone fresh from a breakup, and looking to dwell in despair. Otherwise, one hopes that the next time out, Ray LaMontagne will find time to come in from the rain.

(two out of five stars)

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