After reviewing goodness knows how many books, DVDs, and CDs I have become aware of a very interesting conundrum. The more innovative and original the work, the harder it is to write a review about it. Normally I can develop a frame of reference and evaluate a piece within it, reporting how well the person, band, or creators have met the needs of that definition.
But when you're dealing with a work that moves outside the familiar you have to develop an unique context in order to properly frame a response to the work. The compensation for this is, on the whole, the work is much higher quality than normal and well worth the effort. Even when the work ends up being crap, you can revel in the joy of puncturing a balloon or two of pretentious twaddle (like I'm one to talk) and direct people to run as fast as they can in the opposite direction.
The last few years have seen a return in the music industry of something that had vanished for a while – the sensitive male singer who pens songs about his innermost thoughts and feelings. A great deal of it, like what came round in the seventies with the likes of Dan Hill, is self-indulgent claptrap. If they have so many problems they need to be in therapy, not passing their troubles off as art. If they're writing the stuff because they think it's good music than they really need to be in therapy.
But amidst all of the schlock, there are a couple of performers out there who manage to transcend the self and write songs that are not only musically interesting but also lyrically intelligent and emotionally honest. One of the best of this crop is Ray LaMontagne a singer/songwriter from New Hampshire in the United States.
Ray's debut CD, Trouble, sold over a quarter million copies through word of mouth alone. Its combination of musical skill and lyrical integrity struck a chord with audiences everywhere. It seems no matter what the marketing geniuses would have us believe, there is a healthy market out there for music that is more than just simplistic lyrics, sung by a half naked nymphet, and a heavy bass beat.
For his second disc Ray has shown himself to be both more than just a flash in the pan, and someone who's not content to just sit on his laurels and repeat a successful formula. Till The Sun Turns Black, if you will excuse the pun, is as different from Trouble as night from day musically speaking. While the first disc was comprised of mainly up-tempo, almost Rhythm and Blues, tracks, for this second effort he has striven to make each song more musically indicative of the themes expressed in the lyrics.
The result is a disc that is less immediately accessible with its atmospheric, almost brooding music in places, but just as satisfying to listen to and think about. Ray is quoted as saying about this new disc that he didn't just want to record another collection of songs. "It's definitely not Trouble: Part Two" is how he puts it. He says that he didn't so much chose as they were the ones that picked at him and wouldn't let him alone – the ones that were difficult to write because they demanded more of an emotional commitment than others.
I've deliberately taken my time with this disc before writing a review. Often times you can listen to a CD once or twice and know it well enough to write 800 hundred words saying why it's good or bad and you feel like you've done it justice. In the case of Till The Sun Turns Black I'm not sure it will matter how many times I listen to it from here on in, I'll probably always feel like what I've written won't be able to do more than skim the surface.
Like a poem that takes on different meanings with each reading, a broader perspective offered, or a different view, dependent on your own feelings that day, Till The Sun Turns Black can't be pinned down easily in terms of good song/bad song — except in terms of technical matters — because the content will appeal to different people in different ways.
The one thing that should have been paid attention to was the mix down. With Ray's voice singing in a lower register than the orchestration on the opening track, "Be Here Now," it tends to wash out the lyrics in places. On a disc where the lyrics are of such obvious importance to the writer, the vocal track needs to be predominant throughout and not subservient to the atmosphere.
Tendencies like that can turn an emotionally honest song into a melodramatic mess. I'm not saying that's the case here, but I could see no reason for having to strain to listen to the lyrics of this song. If production values are sparse use minimal instruments as accompaniment, than a vocal track that blends into the music won't be washed out. But when you start incorporating the full string section of an orchestra it becomes paramount to ensure the integrity of the vocal line.
In other instances the use of a single stringed instrument, like the cello that introduces a later song, is ideal for creating the atmosphere that generates so much of the discs effectiveness. Ray considers his voice another instrument aside from being simply the articulator of a song's ideas, and he is able to modulate the tones and range of his voice to realize that goal and increase the impact of the material without resorting to histrionics.
One of the hardest things for a new performer to do is follow up a successful debut album. The pressure on him or her to repeat the success — either commercially or artistically — is enormous. Given those circumstances it would be understandable if the individual elected to play it safe and produce an album of material similar to what was on the first one.
Ray LaMontagne has elected to ignore the conventional music business wisdom of "if it ain't broken don't mess with it," and followed his creative instincts instead. The resulting disc is one of the most lyrically intelligent and emotionally honest collections of music I've listened to in a long time.
I have a hard time with people who use the appellant artist indiscriminately in reference to pop musicians. In my mind it diminishes the meaning of the word and elevates the person's work to a status it doesn't deserve. In the case of Ray LaMontagne I have no trouble saying Till The Sun Turns Black is the work of an artist.
You may find Till The Sun Turns Black harder to absorb and listen to than Ray's debut album, Trouble, but stick with it. The rewards are worth the labour.