Drawn from my Editor’s Note in the July-August issue of Relix. Be sure to pick up Ouroboros and check out Ray LaMontagne with MMJ over the coming weeks while you still can…
I think Jim James said it best.
When discussing some of the pushback that Ray LaMontagne received after completing Ouroboros —his absorbing new album comprising two seamless, segued suites and no iTunes-ready singles—James observed, “ Dark Side of the Moon and What’s Going On are not only artistically successful, they’re two of the most commercially successful records of all time. You would think that major labels would see this and say, ‘Hey, there’s a way we can have both. We can let the artist be creative. We can let the artist make this wild, cool, giant piece of music, but it also can be hugely commercially successful.’”
This, to me, is precisely the point. In the ongoing dichotomy of art and commerce that musicians often face, which seems all the more stark in 2016, there can yet be a vibrant nexus of artistic achievement. From a label’s perspective, our current era must feel like a throwback to the age of singles in the 1950s and early ’60s. On the other hand, as I wrote in this issue’s cover story, “a record like Ouroboros is not only the antithesis, it may also be the antidote to this sort of thinking, as there are plenty of consumers who are looking for something more substantive and ambitious that will reverberate.”
I suspect that you’ll back me on this one.
Some of what inspired LaMontagne to conceive Ouroboros is a reminder of his halcyon days and the ritual of collectively savoring albums with friends. He still celebrates “that whole experience of listening to the first side, then when you get to the end, everyone takes a breath and there’s a moment where you get another drink or you roll a joint and then everyone is like, ‘OK, are we ready? We’re going back in.’ It’s just a big communal experience.”
LaMontagne cites Dark Side and _Blonde on Blonde in this context, and, as for Ouroboros itself, he points to Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock as inspirations.
What was it for you? Wish You Were Here ? The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway ? For me,
it was Todd Rundgren’s Todd. We’d lie down on the shag rag, turn out the lights, cue up side one and the game was afoot. My association with that album is so strong that, many years later, when it finally came out on CD, I held off on playing it for a few weeks, saving it for an imminent late-night car ride. On that evening, I dropped it into my player but immediately had to
turn it off for fear of driving off the road.
Years later, it was Miles Davis’ A Tribute to Jack Johnson, with In a Silent Way a close second. I once lugged some “portable” speakers up the side of a mountain for a few hours (back when they
weren’t quite as portable as today) so that when I finally reached the summit I could reward myself with Jack Johnson, an experience so satisfying and memorable that I’ve never repeated it. As I type this, I can still feel the exaltation I experienced with John McLaughlin’s first notes. (What album did this for you? Send an email to [email protected] and share your memory. We’ll aim to run some of those responses in a future issue of the magazine.)
Of course, you’ve also likely experienced any number of concert recordings in a similar context. When it comes to official releases, the majesty that is Live/Dead may have set you down the path. Or perhaps it was Phish’s A Live One, the Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East, Coltrane’s “Live” at the Village Vanguard or maybe B.B. King’s Live at the Regal. Any of these could have been the gateway to your own archival collection of astounding shows. The fabled second set from the Grateful Dead at Barton Hall on 5/8/77 will do in a pinch, and I always keep it at the ready, along with a few Sonny Rollins sets and the standalone “Runaway Jim” from 11/29/97, which clocks in at nearly an hour.
In this context, though, I’m thinking of those artists who put in the time and effort to create studio albums that defy convention and offer the listener much more than an aggregation of singles.
After speaking with LaMontagne for our cover story, I believe he never felt he was “taking a chance” when he wrote the material on Ouroboros. Instead, he would have desecrated his inner compass had he inhibited the path to free expression. Like anyone who shares his voice with the world, LaMontagne had faith that other people would learn of the album and seek it out, even without the catalyst of a single, so that Ouroboros might become the soundtrack for their communal shag carpets, microfiber couches or mountaintops.
I’d like to prove him right and do the same for other artists who trust in their inner voice.
For, indeed, as Ray LaMontagne sings in the final line of the album, “You’re never going to hear this song on the radio, but wouldn’t it make a lovely photograph?”
I encourage you to share in that vision.