Ray LaMontagne may be from New Hampshire, but on new album “Supernova,” he is in a decidedly West Coast frame of mind.
Time and again, he references California in the lyrics, name checking Beverly Hills, the Pacific Coast Highway, and Ojai.
And that’s not where the homage ends. Many of the songs on the singer/songwriter’s fifth studio set, out today (29), feel inspired by Southern California’s great songwriting era of the ‘60s and ‘70s. “Ojai” would have fit right in on a Byrds album. Opening track, “Lavender,” is awash in so many Mamas & Papas and Strawberry Alarm Clock psychedelic swirls that you’ll be reaching for a peace sign, go-go boots, and a flower to wear in your hair before listening further.
The release of “Supernova” comes 10 years after LaMontagne arrived in 2004 with “Trouble,” with his rugged, emotive vocal style drawing comparisons to everyone from Van Morrison and The Band to Joni Mitchell and his musical hero, Stephen Stills.
With his subsequent sets, the critical darling orbited around the same sun, switching it up just enough to keep it interesting, including recording the last set, 2010’s “God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise,” with his since-dispatched Pariah Dogs. The set snagged the Grammy for best contemporary folk album, making it understandable if LaMontagne had decided to remain on the country-tinged roads that drove the success of that album.
Instead, the reclusive LaMontagne seems to have loosened—and lightened— up a bit. On “Supernova,” he transforms from folkie to hippie, and the breezier tone serves him well.
In interviews, LaMontagne has talked about how songwriting had been a painful process for him until “Supernova,” when the songs seemed to flow. Pulling back on the throttle works for LaMontagne. This is the first album where he sounds as if he’s not gritting his teeth at times.
Credit also goes to producer Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, who recorded the album over a three-week period at his Nashville studio. Using Auerbach’s choice of session players results in LaMontagne’s most cohesive, tight, and crisp album yet.
First single, “Supernova” is the most jubilant pop song LaMontagne has cut, even poppier than the soulful Stax salute, “You Are The Best Thing” from 2008’s “Gossip in the Grain.” Similar to that tune, he’s lavishing praise on the object of his affection, but “Supernova” has a jangle in its step that lifts it above that past effort. On ethereal “Airwaves,” light drums, a wispy organ, and a swaying hypnotic beat bolster LaMontagne’s sexy, delicate vocal delivery. On “She’s The One,” the closest thing “Supernova” has to a rocker, layered vocals and surf-styled guitars propel the atmospheric track.
LaMontagne crashes back to earth on the shape-shifting “Pick Up a Gun,” a hazy, dreamy sonic kaleidoscope full of cascading melodies, their beauty contrasting with LaMontagne’s vitriolic refrain of “I never want to see your face again.”
It’s never been LaMontagne’s style to go for the grand gesture; instead he draws the listener in as the courtly reluctant romantic. On “Supernova,” he does so with an easy charm, steeping his sound in the past, while sounding effortlessly fresh.