The Other "Brother Ray"...
I get pretty insane about Ray Lamontagne. Well, I used to get pretty insane, these days I'm a little more subdued, but excitement still courses my veins when he puts out new music, or comes to town, or trims his beard.
He's written a handful of songs I like to label "songs I wish I wrote." For instance, take "Jolene" from his first record "Trouble." That's a song I can listen to on repeat for an entire workday commute, without realizing I've only been listening to one song for my entire workday commute. The alliteration, imagery & sentiment in the lines: "I found myself face down in a ditch/ Booze in my hair, blood on my lip / A picture of you, holding a picture of me / In the pocket of my blues jeans"
WHAT?! are you joking?! Even a guy like Ray Lamontagne, with his shy demeanor and mildly creepy aesthetic had to have marched around his barn, deep in the woods of Maine, covered in goosebumps after writing those lines. But then you hear: "Man needs something he can hold onto/ A nine pound hammer or a woman like you/ Either one of those things will do"
GIVE. ME. A. BREAK. Round 2 of the Ray "goosebump dance." This is a song, as a songwriter, that you could care less if it becomes a hit, you know it's genius the minute the pen hits the paper, and you do a "goosebump dance."
I guess you can count this as my digression, because this post isn't about "Jolene."
This post is about appreciating a songwriter, and appreciating the life of a song. In my meager experience, I've learned that some songs find themselves over time. There's nothing, at least in the scope of human capability, that can accelerate the process of a maturing song. I'm using Ray Lamontagne as an example because I've followed his career from a few months before "Trouble" hit shelves in September of 2004.
During the end of his first tours in support of "Trouble," he played a new song called "Empty" that I remember being utterly gorgeous the first time I heard it. A lot of times you see a new band at the end of their tour playing new songs, sometimes those songs lack in comparison to the tracks you know and love, the artist knows that after a few performances they might not be very good and you never hear them again. This song was obviously a no brainer for the next record...and after hearing it at 3 or 4 different live shows with Ray, his harmonica, his upbright bass player and very light percussion, you imagine they know what theyre doing when they get in the studio.
When "'Til The Sun Turns Black" was released in August 2006, I can remember being happy with a small feeling of "i'm a true fan" after recognizing the title "Empty" in the track listing.
small digression: one of the best Ray shows I've ever seen was the day this record came out. 3 close friends and I bought tickets to a very intimate performance at the Hiro Ballroom in NYC. Included in the ticket price was a copy of the CD, and we had ridiculous seats. Ray was with his new band and a special guest member on electric piano, John Medeski (of Medeski Martin & Wood fame.) They played the entire record, start to finish and came out for an encore with a few tracks off "Trouble." Happy memory.
Listening to "Empty" this time around, was a whole new world. No more concert chit chat in the background and no more tinny, live acoustic guitar distraction. This version, again, utterly gorgeous. Ray loses the harmonica, they add lush production, an almost orchestral percussion & you think to yourself, in slow motion, "A Christmas Story" fashion - "ffffuuuuuuuuuu%!"
Simply perfect, right? Sure...but perfection doesn't mean you can't make a sharp turn and give it another try. Throughout the support for "'Til The Sun Turns Black" Ray's new band got a groove. Obviously, a string arrangement is an expensive stage mainstay and that's wholly understandable. During this time, my rabid support for this artist backed off a bit, and I probably only saw him once or twice as opposed to 4 or 5 times. Not once did I hear a version of "Empty" that rivaled what they put out next. In October 2008, Ray Lamontagne put out "Gossip In The Grain." Another stellar record, with the Ray "staples," for instance, on this album and the last, he tends to put out the sad, bastard lament (about 5 or 6 a record) and a very "Muscle Shoals" sounding, old school R&B influenced track (ie: Three More Days & You Are The Best Thing.) But as a bonus track, there was another LIVE version of "Empty." I'll admit my first reaction was "...alright already, enough with this song." Give this track one listen, and it's the one you'll listen to forever (i can't promise this is true for you but humor me for dramatic emphasis.) Three simple changes make this version the one to beat...and by simple, I mean to the naked ear.
Change #1... Obviously, at this point in his career, a live recording is a. not just Ray and a crummy acoustic pickup and b. a LOT more professional. But without the applause at beginning and end, you hardly know this is a live cut.
Change #2... Ray's voice on record, with the exception of his performance on "Trouble" & "Jolene," will NEVER match his road rasp. The voice he develops on tour is a different animal, and you can't top it. Maybe you don't hear it? But dammit, I swear I do
Change #3 (and the one that keeps me coming back for more)... Still no harmonica, but the strings are replaced with Ray's guitar player, Eric Heywood, playing a pedal steel guitar that melts my damn heart. I have a soft spot for pedal steel. (off the top of my head, another favorite pedal steel performances of note is "Paul's Song" off of M.Ward's album "Transistor Radio", I don't know the musician.) But the part that Eric Heywood plays on this song is so sweet and perfect, you won't know what's happening to you.
Stop here: Buy this and weep
For all you Ray fans out there, you don't need me to break the news that a new album is recorded and ready to be released in just over a month, August 17th to be exact. It's called "God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise" by Ray Lamontagne & The Pariah Dogs...here's the album art:
And here's the first single "Beg, Steal or Borrow":
see you there!