Sometime last fall, while preparing for a DittyTV concert, I watched three VH1 Storytellers episodes in a row.
First was Kings of Leon. As an unrepentant KOL fan, I found their episode wildly entertaining (singer Caleb publicly teasing guitarist Matthew for being unable to play his own part for “Down South”) and totally unnecessary (“this song’s about our fans…it’s called ‘Fans'”).
Second came My Morning Jacket. As a diehard MMJ superfan, I’d call their performance predictably great and weird. A favorite moment came when Jim James inferred he looks up during high notes because he’s asking dead singers for help.
Third was Ray LaMontagne.
Song of the Week: Ray LaMontagne, “Like Rock & Roll And Radio“
Eight years after first hearing him, I still can’t gauge my Ray-fandom. I generally like him, but I don’t own any albums. I know and admire a few specific songs, but have never sought them out. I never choose to listen to him, yet I never turn him off.
So, I was a little surprised by how much I enjoyed his episode of Storytellers. As I watched all three, something occurred to me. I’ve long enjoyed KOL for what they aren’t (precious, inaccessible, etc). I’ve long loved MMJ for what they are (exciting, challenging, peerless live, etc). But what I like about Ray LaMontagne’s songs is the same thing that I liked about his Storytellers episode: I enjoy his music less for what it is than for what it evokes.
Take Ray’s voice: it’s resonant but vaporous, solid but shapeless. It’s full of cobwebs. It’s haunting but welcome; it’s a friendly ghost. It’s a wool blanket. And there’s the key: though he sings everything similarly (compare his voice song-to-song to, say, McCartney’s on “Michelle” and “Helter Skelter”), that one voice conjures up a hundred different things. He doesn’t really change, but my imagination does.
I’m not minimizing this; it’s a real gift. No other voice in pop music sounds quite like him. In fact, compare his speaking voice to his singing voice—he doesn’t even sound like him. I don’t doubt that his singing voice is unaffected. But hearing him speak, I can’t account for it. His voice is a microcosm of his total musical appeal to me. Watching Storytellers, I realized that his songs do the same thing over five minutes that his voice does in an instant: they evoke much more than they say.
I could get into the nuts and bolts of why I admire “Like Rock & Roll and Radio.” I could take it line by line, chord by chord, like I sometimes do. LaMontagne is a thoughtful, adept songwriter; there’s plenty to explore. I’m sure his superfans experience his songs this way, but I don’t.
What I enjoy about his songs has everything to do with them vaguely, cosmically, intangibly but nothing to do with them really. Ray LaMontagne’s songs put me in a trance. This is rare for me, but it’s deeply satisfying. You know the code word or snap of the fingers that puts people under hypnosis? That’s the beginning of every Ray LaMontagne song for me. I hear those drum brushes shuffle and my mind runs. Well, saunters.
For example, here’s how I experienced “Like Rock & Roll and Radio,” roughly in real time. Step inside my head for six minutes, if you like. Maybe throw on a sweater. Buckle up.
This sounds like Joni Mitchell. Square beat against round, syncopated phrasing.
It’s slow. It sounds warm.
Solo acoustic stuff sounds wintry, but this sounds like summer. Sounds like midnight in June. I want to put this song on a CD and drive somewhere. I bet it sounds good in the heavy summer air. I’m going to burn this right now and go driving down old Houston Levee, its gnarled trees, its sharp curves, the darkening sky. I’ll play it loud through those backroads. I’ll let it drift out my window and out the other side.
Sing, Ray. You almost get used to his voice if you listen only to it. But listen to something else, then go back? It’s disarming.
Yeah, I’m burning that CD. I’m driving the long way from Wolfchase to Germantown. I might get a pretzel at the mall.
That’s where that Winterfest dance was. I never went to a Winterfest dance, but that’s where it was. I picked up some friends afterward–four kinds of bad cologne filling the backseat. There is it, that huge mansion. Fewer trees now.
There’s a sudden curve where the accident happened the night I finished eighth grade. I can smell the honeysuckle there. I stepped outside my car a few years later and stood in the spot for twenty minutes. No cars came. It was the middle of the night in the middle of the woods, and the moon was bright. I could see, and the crickets were deafening. I’m going to drive there now with this CD in my car and park in that same spot. It might be as dark, but not as empty. Lights from condos nearby. Moon less bright.
Keep on singing, Ray. This is one of those acoustic-and-vocal-only songs that sounds like there’s more there. Usually those sound spare, hungry. This sounds full.
There’s my middle school. The corner window in the west arm–that’s my seventh grade English class. I remember a girl sang “Champagne Supernova” in that class one time. She got to class first and didn’t see me enter. She was usually loud but she sang it in a whisper. She was usually laughing at something, but she had sad eyes. I probably loved her. I must’ve.
There’s the house we rolled whenever we got bored. One time, we rolled it in daylight.
And there’s Shelby Farms. There’s that stretch of road, wide open and technicolor green, no traffic lights, fireflies hovering over the grass in every direction, little lights circling, searching for nothing in the dark.
Now I’m playing flashlight tag in my friend’s neighborhood. Sprinting through backyards, hopping fences, lawns still wet from the sprinklers. Old neighbors complaining like they were never young.
But that’s just for a minute. I’m back past Shelby Farms. I took this road into midtown so many nights that summer after college. I told myself it was to hear a band, or to see a girl, but now I know it was just to drive and hear “Sixteen,” or “I Will Sing You Songs” or “California Waiting,” or anything else that made me feel less alone. The Clark Tower solitary in the distance, sun low, moon high, night an open invitation.
Keep on singing, Ray. The sky looks the same, that dark pink, then violet. It’s almost black for an hour.
This song doesn’t sound like being there then; it sounds like me remembering it now. Why is that? What is that?
This is a long song.
Have I heard this before? It sounds familiar. I wonder what the girl in the song looks like. I wonder who he’s really talking to.
Sing. I’m going to burn this right now CD and I’m going to drive around tonight and pretend it’s summer. Lap the miles where woods used to be. Almost smell the flowers at the road’s shoulder. Let the names of past songs and friends and loves and memories ring through the car. Hear them drift through my window and out the other side. I can go back. I can go there now, before the night gets any older.
Keep singing, Ray. There’s still time.