The word from RCA Records came over the digital transom at 12:41 p.m. Feb. 25: The first song from Ray LaMontagne’s eagerly awaited album “Supernova” was being released. The lead paragraph of the email included a tantalizing SoundCloud link to the song, the album’s title track.
The debut of the “Supernova” album was nearly 10 weeks away, and its arrival was not without trepidation for fans of the earnest and earthy poetry of LaMontagne’s previous work, especially 2008's "Gossip in the Grain" and the 2010 breakout album “God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise”: Recording had moved from the singer’s home studio in Massachusetts to Nashville and the new producer, replacing LaMontagne himself, was Dan Auerbach, frontman and architect of the Black Keys’ swirly garage rock and friend of pop technician Danger Mouse.
“God Willin’” won a Grammy Award (best contemporary folk album), but, more importantly, was a work that inspired a passionate new tribe of adherents for LaMontagne, the onetime Maine shoe-factory worker whose previous radio exposure came via 2004’s “Trouble” and 2008's “You Are the Best Thing.” Abetted by soundtrack appearances on TV shows such as “Parenthood” and “Bones,” the gentle folk-rock romance of “God Willin’,” typified by “Beg, Steal or Borrow,” which was nominated for a song of the year Grammy, struck a unique chord with an expanding audience.
Would “Supernova” stay true to this successful aesthetic and LaMontagne’s enigmatic persona?
On first listen, the single “Supernova” was a disaster: Dripping in post-production sheen, this cute slice of sunny, upbeat ‘70s pop-rock came complete with hand-claps and cascades of bouncy keyboards, a little Three Dog Night guitar, and LaMontagne’s coarse tenor muffled in echo-y overdub as he delivered his salient point: “I want you to be my girl.”
I was mad at Auerbach, mad at Nashville, mad at RCA Records and mad at LaMontagne for allowing himself to be dragged down this contrived path. I didn’t listen to the song again. I avoided the album altogether, its debut at No. 3 on Billboard’s Top 200 and No. 1 on the Digital Album chart just proof of “Supernova’s” cynical pop pandering.
LaMontagne took responsibility for the shifting sound, telling American Songwriter, “I really don’t know anything about music or music theory or anything like that. … I was hearing stuff that was really speaking to me.”
But with the approach of LaMontagne’s concert on Saturday at the Fillmore Miami Beach, due diligence required a complete listening of “Supernova.”
And it’s hard to imagine being more wrong about this album. It doesn’t take long to discover that LaMontagne has crafted a daringly ambitious and beautifully rendered homage to the best influences of ’60s and ’70s pop, psychedelia and country rock. A best-album Grammy Award nomination for “Supernova” seems like a given, and a win would not surprise.
From the get-go, the two opening songs were a revelation and cleansed any lingering distrust of the title track (still the weakest of the bunch for me). “Lavender,” is a swirly, clover field maze of guitar and falsetto-borne dreaminess in the best tradition of the Hollies and the Zombies, followed by “Airwaves,” a gentle romantic come-on that out-Van Morrisons Van Morrison.
An entertaining challenge might be to assign influences for each song on “Supernova” to its antecedent: I hear not-subtle echoes of the Band and the Allman Brothers (“She’s the One”), the Kinks and the Who (“Julia”), Crosby, Stills and Nash (“No Other Way”), the Eagles and Neil Young (“Ojai”), the Beatles (“Smashing”) and the Grateful Dead (“Drive-In Movies”).
Proving how wrong I was, the album has received quite positive notices across the pop culture spectrum, from the New York Times and Rolling Stone to Paste and Pop Matters (the latter called the album “rife with hip touches”).
“There's nothing here that's exactly new,” observed a review in Britain’s The Guardian, “but by assembling an array of unexpected influences in one blissful place, LaMontagne has crafted an unlikely perfect summer soundtrack.”
In his conversation with American Songwriter, LaMontagne acknowledged a love of the psychedelic sound, including early Pink Floyd, the Kinks, the Troggs and Captain Beefheart. But he gave a lot of credit to another pop chameleon and craftsman.
“Elvis Costello also played a big part in this record. He’s always been a sort of mentor to me. Overall, I was just going through this weird stage. Nothing was sounding interesting to me. ... It was like the well had run dry,” LaMontagne said.
“He said, ‘There’s only one way. You just have to trust that inner voice.’ That was really helpful,” LaMontagne said. “So I just really allowed myself to write a different kind of song. I thought people might not like it, but that’s never been a factor for me. I’ve been writing songs now for fifteen years and so I can trust my gut at this point.”
IF YOU GO
Ray LaMontagne performs 8 p.m. Saturday, with opening acts the Belle Brigade and Jenny Lewis, at the Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave.Tickets: $37.50-$60.50. Info: 305-673-7300, FillmoreMB.com, Ticketmaster.com.