WHEN RAY LAMONTAGNE'S Beg Steal Or Borrow was Grammy-nominated in the Song Of The Year category back in 2010, your scribe was surprised. Good as that tune was, surely the real doozy on LaMontagne's fourth album, God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise, was Like Rock & Roll And Radio? Exquisitely sung, the song set gradual estrangement from one’s lover alongside daytime radio’s increasing indifference to pop music’s greatest form, an odd juxtaposition that was intensely moving. Four years on, this New Hampshire-born, Americana-rooted singer-songwriter has altered tack a little without losing one iota of his potency. The 10 songs on Supernova – “lightning bugs” that only flew into LaMontagne’s jar after much soul-searching and a letter of encouragement from pal Elvis Costello – include a number that flirt with psychedelia. The record was produced in Nashville by the much in-demand Dan Auerbach. Using LaMontagne’s “fully-rendered” demos as a road map, Auerbach teamed him with new foils including the esteemed multi-instrumentalist Russ Pahl (Loretta Lynn, Patty Griffin). The resulting arrangements are masterful affairs that frame LaMontagne’s material with great taste and flair. If the slow-cascading melodies on No Other Way are pretty enough to have been essayed by Roy Orbison, and the easy charm and lightlyworn samba rhythm of Airwaves recall Paul Simon’s early solo album flirtations with world music, Supernova is even more striking when neo-psychedelic gem Pick Up A Gun suddenly sheds its deliberately indeterminate intro. When a beguiling vocal and softly strummed acoustic guitar bring everything into (soft) focus, there’s something of John Lennon’s #9 Dream about it.
As ever, LaMontagne’s voice delights. It’s a classy instrument with notes of honey and bonfire smoke. Listen to the way he phrases the line “I don’t back down” on the first verse of the title track. What a joy it must be to be able to make that noise. The record’s lightest moment is the propulsive Julia, another neo-psychedelic number. When LaMontagne sings “Sundays in the park/She says, what a lark” it’s gratifyingly twee, the mind transported to the daft bun-feeding of ducks that makes Steve Marriott sound like Derek Smalls in the middle section of Itchycoo Park.
Ultimately, though, Julia is but a palate cleanser for Ojai, a magnificent tune named for a city in Ventura County, California, and a US place name song fit to keep company with Galveston et al. Built on a warming Dock Of The Bay groove, it segues to soulful country and packs an incontestable melodic logic that makes you feel you’ve heard it before somewhere. I believe it’s what they call an instant classic.