Friday, June 17, 2011

Song of the Week: Ray LaMontagne "Rock & Roll and Radio"

Before I dive into this week's song, a bit of housekeeping:

I'm in the process of transferring this blog from Blogger to Wordpress.  I'm working out the kinks right now, setting it up at the new host, migrating content, etc.  Friends, confidantes, and Wordpress techies assure me this can be done with minimal hassle and maximum continuity.  In other words, don't worry: all past content, archives, and comments should be retained.  The blog will just have a new url and, if you've subscribed to this RSS Feed, you'll need to update it.  I'll give you that info soon.

The tentative date for the switch will be Friday, June 23.  I'll post here Wednesday, June 21 with specifics for folks who want to update their bookmark/RSS feed/etc.

For what it's worth, I think this'll make the blog much more enjoyable for you to read.  Wordpress simply does a better job of integrating the blog into the ways people really use this stuff: Facebook, Twitter, email, Google Reader, etc.  The goal has always been to talk about music (my music, other artists' music, etc.).  I think this will make it easier to us to interact.


Song of the Week: Ray LaMontagne, "Rock & Roll and Radio"

Several weeks ago, Kings of Leon appeared on VH1's Storytellers.  As an unabashed KOL fan, I found their episode fully entertaining and totally unnecessary (e.g. "this song's about our's called 'Fans'").  The next week, My Morning Jacket's Storytellers aired.  Their performance was predictably great and weird (i.e. they only played one song--a non-single--off their new album).  Then, last Friday, Ray LaMontagne told his stories.

Six 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.

I'm telling you this because I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed his episode of Storytellers.  But as I watched, something occurred to me: 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. 

Maybe the best example is Ray's voice: it's resonant and vaporous, solid but shapeless.  It's full of ghosts and cobwebs.  It's a wool blanket.  It sounds like rain in the morning.  And on, and on...and there's the key!  Though he sings everything similarly (compare his voice song-to-song to, say, Paul'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 quite like him.  I don't doubt that his singing voice is natural and 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 like "Rock & Roll and Radio."  I could take it line by line, chord by chord, like I do with other Songs of the Week.  LaMontagne is a thoughtful, adept songwriter.  There's plenty in there.  And 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 and nothing to do with them really.  They put me in a trance.  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.  Here's how I experienced "Rock & Roll and Radio," roughly in real time.  Step inside my head for six minutes.  Follow along if you like:

This melody sounds like Joni Mitchell.  Square beat against round, syncopated phrasing.

Sounds great.

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 anywhere and nowhere.  I bet it sounds good in that heavy summer air.  I want to drive off and around the old Houston Levee, winding through the gnarled trees, the sharp curves, the darkening purple sky.  I'll play it loud through those haunted backroads of my youth.  I'll let it drift out my window, back through the moonroof, and out the other side.

Last time I drove those roads, rock n' roll and radio weren't strangers.  Middle school, high school, college.  I'd take the back way from Germantown to Wolfchase, the long way, the scenic way, woods all the way from here to there and back.  I'd listen to 96X, or its successors and imitators, or some mix CD derived from it.  I'd pass the landmarks.  I'd drive nowhere and think about girls and think about music and pass familiar places. 

That's where the Winterfest dance was.  That huge mansion appearing out of nowhere in the tall trees.  It looked new, but it also looked like part of the woods, that unsettled Cordova frontier.  I never went to a Winterfest dance, but that's where it was.  I met some friends afterward.  Bad cologne mingled in the air, stagnated in the backseat of my car.  Semisonic.  There is it, that huge mansion--I can see it.  Fewer trees now.

There's where those two juniors fought after school one day.  Late in the school year, almost summer.  One more week and they wouldn't have even had to.

There's the sudden, jagged curve where the accident happened the night I finished eighth grade.  I can smell the honeysuckle there.  I got outside one night and stood in the spot for twenty minutes and no cars came.  It was the middle of the night in the middle of the woods, but the moon was bright.  I could see.  I only heard crickets, but they were deafening.  And then in the car a minute or an hour or a year later, the Goo Goo Dolls on 96X.  "Name" isn't really so different from "Rock & Roll and Radio."  Sing it, Ray.  Both have an acoustic guitar and both mention the radio.  They're both about a girl.  They're both about losing something.  I could drive out 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.  The moon less bright. 

There's the middle school, a four-legged brick spider.  The corner window in the west leg--there was my seventh grade English class.  I can hear "Champagne Supernova," and I'm back inside.  That skinny brown-haired girl sang it by herself one day.  She sat in English class before anyone else came into the room.  She was usually loud but she sang it in a whisper.  She didn't know I could hear her, didn't know anyone could.  She was always laughing at something, but she had sad eyes.  I don't know what I thought of her before or after, but for a second or a minute or an hour she sang "Champagne Supernova" to herself in an empty classroom and goddamn she was beautiful.

I could loop around the high school baseball field.  That's where I played Pearl Jam's "Breath" on repeat one night in April.  I listened to the whole Singles soundtrack on repeat that April.  I never left it alone.  I circled that park, didn't want to face the crowd.

There's the house we rolled in daylight.

Sing it, Ray.  Oh man, this would sound great on the road tonight.  I could let it ring through my car, driving past 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.

And then I'm playing flashlight tag in my friend's neighborhood.  Listening to "Machinehead" before, sprinting through the backyards, hopping fences, shoes soaked in dew.  Old neighbors complaining like they were never young.

But that's just for a minute.  I'm back on Walnut Grove, cutting through Shelby Farms.  There was that summer after college I took this road from Appling to midtown so many nights.  I told myself it was to hear any given band, or to see any given girl.  Now I think it was just to drive and hear "Sixteen," or "I Will Sing You Songs."  Songs about loving music, and songs about girls, and loving songs about all of these things at once.  The drive out was always my favorite, pointed west.  The Clark Tower stood lonely in the distance, sun burning low on the horizon, night an open invitation, every point of light a possibility.

Christ, keep singing Ray.  Cause the sky looks just like it did then, that deep violet after the sun goes down.  It stays almost black for another hour.  I remember that dark purple light best from my friend's pool, every Friday.  We'd listen to 107.5.  Tan, pretty girls, dogs chasing each others' tails.  Ray's song doesn't sound like me 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 so familiar.  Another road, another road.  I wonder what the girl in the song looks like.  I wonder who he's really talking to.  Sometimes I don't know.  I'll get this song.  I'll burn it to a CD and I'll go.  I can go back.  Let it wade through that heavy summer air, winding through the gnarled trees, the sharp curves, the crimson sky.  I'll play it loud through those haunted backroads of my youth.  Down every street I know by heart.  Lap the miles where those woods used to be.  Haunt those backroads and smell the wildflowers at the road's shoulder.  Let the names of past loves ring out through my car.  Whisper them to myself, hear them drift out my window, into the moonroof, out the other side.  I can go back.  I can go there right now, drive off before the night.  Keep singing, Ray.  The sun's just beginning to set.  It's not dark.  There's still time.

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