There are few things as oddly satisfying as seeing old tropes being used effectively. We all know that there’s nothing new under the sun, and that originality is just a word for things that we forget have already been done before, but if something is cliched, it’s cliched. The secret to good art is not simply expressing new ideas, but using the tools of any given medium to express them in interesting ways. A constant search for originality can be enriching, but it can also lead to uniqueness for its own sake as opposed to quality. Instead, it can be just as rewarding to see a new dog perform old tricks, as it were. Whether it's an old-fashioned film recycling cinematic techniques from decades ago, a novel using well-worn storytelling tropes to refresh a stale subgenre, or, as the case may be, singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne’s new album “Monovision,” released June 26 on RCA, which is a splendid modernization of old-school folk rock for a new age.
At first listen, LaMontagne’s music begs comparison to other homegrown singers of generations past. Bob Dylan might be a step too far, but certainly the likes of Donovan, Gordon Lightfoot, John Denver and the sort. Not quite the voices of a generation in terms of subject matter, but compellingly homespun and earnest storytellers. It's feel-good music, to be sure.
But that does not mean the music is without that modern folk edge typical of singer-songwriters today, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats springs to mind right away, where the biting twang of the guitar and the solidity of the melodies has a weight to it. LaMontagne’s music has qualities apparent in all of the above, but it does have an unmistakable identity amid all the homage. Some of the album’s standout tracks include “Strong Enough,” a seventies-ish jam with excellent lyrics and “Rocky Mountain Healing,” a song that feels like a Neil Young cover but is way too good on its own merits for that to be true.
Other tracks on this album that ought to catch the listener’s attention include “We’ll Make It Through,” a comforting and soothing song whose message is pretty much just the title itself, and the opening track “Roll Me Mama, Roll Me,” the most stripped down and straightforward song on the album, perfectly setting the mood for what’s to come. At 10 songs, “Monovision” isn’t overly long and doesn’t wear out its welcome through sheer length, and thus it works to its benefit that so many of the songs are worthy of note on their own terms.
While it is certain, and it ought to be apparent from this review, that LaMontagne doesn’t have an original thought in his head with this album, that fact ends up not being a detriment to the album’s quality. The music has an effortless quality to it that makes the listener think that LaMontagne could do this all day without breaking a sweat. There are virtually no bumps on the road to completing this album; it's just good quality acoustic rock from beginning to end, and that’s exactly what the album is trying to do.
There isn’t all that much that can be said about these kinds of albums, other than that they are certainly good and are more worth the listener’s attention than quite a few others. “Monovision” accomplishes that which it sets out to do, which is to be a good folk rock album, and that ought to be the last word on the subject.
I give “Monovision” 4/5 stars.