Ouroboros is a redeeming album that creates a lot of sonic possibilities for a one-time folk singer/songwriter.
Ray LaMontagne has gone through some musical changes the last few years. His last two albums, Supernova and now Ouroboros, are almost unrecognizable compared to the likes of his earlier Americana works, Gossip in the Grain, Trouble, and God Willing, and the Creek Don’t Rise.
But don’t take that as derogatory by any means. A good artist grows and progresses as time goes on, and LaMontagne is doing exactly that. He recruited Jim James from My Morning Jacket as producer and even used the rest of MMJ as his studio/touring band. Although it felt as though LaMontagne struggled to find his artistic footing with Supernova, Ouroboros shows a much more focused and confident artist taking bolder steps toward honing in on a new sound. This record is divided into two parts, which are easily distinguished from one another by their instrumentation: Part One is a fuzzy, reverb-filled roller coaster ride, while Part Two is much more reserved, but more reminiscent of classic Ray. It definitely has the feel of a concept album—but what concept is he trying to convey?
Part One feels as though it sonically builds from the ground up. “Homecoming” opens with a Floyd-esque bass click, but immediately changes gears to a ’60s “Summer of Love” vibe with a very recognizable melody that could’ve been pulled from any San Francisco band of the era. This sound is rampant in Part Two, as well. Very mellow tones with very few lyrical changes somehow still paint a perfect picture, with airy vocals and faint reverberated orchestration.
One of the early releases from the album, “Hey, No Pressure” delves into a little bit of classic Ray LaMontagne (think Repo Man) as the momentum of Part One begins its rise upward. His opening line is even melodically reminiscent of “For the Summer” from God Willing & the Creek Don’t Rise. But the song quickly distinguishes itself with the fuzz guitar and psychedelic vocals. It sets a wonderful, balanced tone for the entire album, taking some of the best qualities of Parts One and Two in its grasp. This is a perfect example of a track that gives old-school fans hope early in the album. He hasn’t lost touch with his bluesy roots, something especially apparent in this track.
Standout track “The Changing Man” is the kind of song you can easily lose yourself in. It is repetitive lyrically, but that is not to draw your attention too far from the music. The arrangement lends itself as a natural transition for the two parts of the album. The drums were recorded masterfully and are especially noticeable in the Jon Bonham–style shuffle before the huge, fuzzy guitar crescendo going into the last chorus. This is when the “heavy” first act begins its recession into the softer second half, as it blends itself right into the last track of Part One, “While It Still Beats.”
The transition into “While It Still Beats” makes a hard turn emotionally. The last track of Part One starts with a doomy, almost Black Sabbath–type guitar riff, but then quickly jumps into a submissive vocal melody, taking the tone of the song elsewhere. The reverb on the vocal outro is absolutely amazing. Part One is wrapped up with what sounds like an enormous choir in a big empty church with reverberated “ah’s” to prepare you for the softer musical terrain that follows.
“In My Own Way” eases us into Part Two with a classic LaMontagne chord progression, which can be said for a handful of songs from this record. The difference comes in the lyrical delivery and the instrumentation. This is where the groundwork for a much different musical direction is laid. And, as if it weren’t clear in Part One, it becomes slightly more transparent in Part Two. You hear classic Ray, but wrapped in reverb and spacey orchestration. Part Two is an interesting take on a sound only Ray LaMontagne can provide.
Like “Homecoming” and “In My Own Way,” “Another Day” is a track that has the ’60s San Fran vibe. This one however, is a little more acoustic guitar–driven., letting the lyrics do much of the legwork, as opposed to layered instrumentation and reverb. Some interesting synth swells lead into instrumental cut, “A Murmuration of Starlings.” While these tracks are a necessity to close out a well-rounded album, it is difficult to not feel a lull coming off the heavy fuzz high that is Part One. But, if listened to out of context, the songs serve their purpose exactly as they should.
“Wouldn’t It Make a Lovely Photograph” closes out the album, and again, has a classic sound from the beginning. There’s an acoustic guitar reminiscent of past albums, but the vocals are more in line with the “new sound.” LaMontagne closes out with a near chant, “You’ll Never Hear This Song on the Radio,” which almost sounds like a sigh of relief, and that he’s done what he’s set out to do…almost as if that were his concept all along.
Ouroboros is very different from the artist we all knew and loved from his Americana/folk/singer-songwriter days, and that is perfectly OK. LaMontagne continues to progress with interesting music that makes you feel something different every time you listen to it. His influences seem to be constantly changing, which allows his backlog to breathe and enables him not to become complacent as a songwriter. For any fans who were disappointed in Supernova, Ouroboros is a redeeming album that creates a lot of sonic possibilities for a one-time folk singer/songwriter. | Greg Clark