catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 5 :: 2007.03.09 — 2007.03.23


Metamorphic M&M's

Music is a universal language of epic proportions. Scale the arduous crannies of your memory walls and you’ll most assuredly find moments in which music has either been carpet ride to your experience or more simply the quiet but ever present hum in your elevator up and down circumstances. The slight turn of your car radio knob, perhaps an obsolete term at this point, and one can travel the musical time machine through painful breakups, refining relationships, and everything in between for a moment of laughter, tears, or pensive reflection.

Of course music has a life of its own. Depending on when your then is, the now could be quite a unique place. Regardless of your position, elitist or otherwise, one’s assessment of music spans vast horizons of interest. In an age saturated with the product sounds of the boy band generation freshly assembled off the corporate line, many of us are in need of cognitive resuscitation! The lyrics of the now are…not inspiring to say the least. With notions of ‘I’m going to do this’ and ‘I’m going to lick that’ we seem to struggle to find much to express in terms of depth coupled with simplicity. Isn’t music about expression? Aside from nuances of arbitrary taste we want music that allows us to escape yet be captured. Behold, Ray LaMontagne and The Wood Brothers.

Nostalgia! In this case I imagine what it must have been like to walk the musty top strip of 51st street in NYC circa 1950s. Or perhaps the folk scene in most any big city town café or bar in which only the smoky haze lies between you and jubilant riffs and rhythmic rams. So often it’s our musical musings, our empirical mentors and counselors who’ve walked us through our moments. A spin of Robert Johnson, Dave Brubeck, Paul Simon, Radiohead, Joan Baez or Bob Dylan is likely to evoke vastly different and perhaps some similar responses. The music speaks to a time and a place. It speaks to a people in a particular context. It could be the political turmoil and paradigm shifting of the 1960s or simply the memories of cross-country trips with the family so reminiscent of the Griswolds.  

New England-born Ray LaMontagne has a vivid voice and a pensive mind which produce a soft and rustic sound I just can’t seem to stop playing. LaMontagne emerged in 2004 with his debut album Trouble and recently released his follow-up album Till the Sun Turns Black. Both albums are rich with sound and story. His new album seems to seek out new ground, to avoid giving the listener what he or she expects. "I just wanted to have something different than a collection of songs" he says. Beyond the vanity of mere platinum dreams, LaMontagne celebrates music for music sake. His visceral and honest expression of what happens during the valleys brings distinction to the peaks that we so often long for. They give us perspective.

LaMontagne had a life altering epiphany one morning as he prepared for his Lewiston, Maine shoe factory job. In an “I Got You Babe”/Groundhog Day sort of way, he awoke for the daily grind when Stephen Stills’ “Tree Top Flyer” altered his life. What emerged was an obsession to discover the music himself. He trekked the aisles of his local record shops until he found the album, Stills Alone. He quit his job and began listening and listening to the pantheon of musical history: Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Otis Redding, etc. etc.

LaMontagne’s strength is in the creation of songs that “eat” at you. “I always, always end up recording the songs that I feel are important for me to work through," he says. In our lives, certainly in our creative efforts to make sense of such, we want meaning and emotional relevance. The vintage character of his struggle is a refreshing take on a stale musical culture. LaMontagne contends,

We are a distracted people.  It can be very difficult to remain engaged in life, to interact with other human beings. It's hard, and that's the challenge, really, to remain engaged when nobody can understand each other…Our culture is so naked…I feel like we don't have events to fall back on. So many times, I fall into things, and I feel like I wish I had somebody—or a story—to fall back on that would get me through this, that would explain this. I wonder what we will leave behind. It's just the blink of an eye and we're gone. What will people dig up? Works of art? Or Styrofoam cups?

Getting beyond himself and yet deeply within himself, Ray offers us the opportunity to dig, to excavate artifacts that reveal who we really are. This is laid out in his song “How Come” off his debut album: “People on the street now; Faces long and grim; Souls are feeling heavy; And faith is growing thin; Fears are getting stronger; You can Feel them on the rise; Hopelessness got some by the throat you can see it in their eyes” The question is simple, honest, “how come I can't tell the free world from living hell. How come all I see is a child of god in misery?” It’s a good question that we should consider ourselves.

Alongside the gestation of Ray LaMontagne is the soulful soliloquy of The Wood Brothers. Their debut album Ways Not to Lose is a 12-song amalgamation of folk and blues that premiered in late 2005. Not just a name, brothers Chris and Oliver Wood found their common roots in the characteristics of their musical and life journeys. 

As writer Tom Moon noted in NPR’s “Overlooked 11”, “These gracious little songs, with their common-sense truths and affirmations, sound like they were born on a front porch during a beautiful sunset.” Their simple lyrics and nostalgic sound emerge in the tips of your feet as they begin tapping uncontrollably. It’s magnetic and attractive. I recently played some Wood Brothers for some students and the exclamations were clear: “Who is this?” and “I want it”.

They offer a superior simplicity of lyric that shapes a subtle portrait of life. Take for example, "Chocolate on My Tongue" which notes hopeful optimism in the most rudimentary way: “If I die young, at least I got some chocolate on my tongue." Chris Wood emerged from NYC where he met and teamed with John Medeski to form Medeski, Martin & Wood. Oliver journeyed from Atlanta where he was a guitarist with Tinsley Ellis. There he formed King Johnson, after Robert Johnson and Freddy King, with the same inspiring title formation as Pink Floyd with Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. Both groups celebrated a mixture of blues, jazz, folk, and rock. During a family gathering in 2004, Oliver and Chris began shifting and re-arranging some tunes intermingling King Johnson with Medeski, Martin & Wood. This eventually led to their demo, some gigs, and ultimately the 12-track Allaire Studio creation, Ways Not to Lose in 2005.

All in all, The Wood Brothers and Ray LaMontagne certainly have a timeless quality to their music. Their down home stories atop country blues and rock all soaked with their simple narrative reveals a most amazing singer/songwriter and guitar/bass duo.  So, if you’re willing to pop in some metamorphic M&M’s of musical musings, try ole Ray and the Wood Brothers. There’s always room for a little more jump in our step. As the Psalmist said so eloquently, “Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet…with the harp…with tambourine and dancing…”!

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