The last thing Ray LaMontagne's new album needs is more echo.
A deliberate turn away from the rustic country-soul with which the Grammy-winning singer made his name, "Supernova" instead flashes back to the trippy psychedelic pop of late-'60s England and California.
And it does so meticulously: "She's the One" has the fuzzy, dive-bombing guitars of Jefferson Airplane, while "Lavender," with a rolling groove and breathy interjections from LaMontagne, might be a sequel to the Zombies' "Time of the Season." Other songs on the record, which was produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, strongly recall the Doors, the Byrds and the Kinks.
Nevertheless, extra reverberation — of the acoustic variety — is just what the album got Monday night at Immanuel Presbyterian Church. The high-ceilinged sanctuary on Wilshire Boulevard was the setting for a concert, the first of two, billed as "an intimate presentation of 'Supernova.' "
Was the description accurate? Sure, insofar as LaMontagne performed a good deal of his new material in a space smaller than those he usually plays.
But with all those borrowed sounds bouncing off the church's stone walls, real intimacy was in short supply. LaMontagne seemed sheltered from the audience, hidden inside a cocoon of vaguely familiar guitar licks and lush retro-rock vocal harmonies.
Granted, the barrier could be beautiful to behold.
Backed by a four-piece band that included guitarist Ethan Gruska and drummer Barbara Gruska of L.A.'s Belle Brigade, LaMontagne floated his parched croon over the dreamy jangle of "No Other Way" and the sweetly shuffling "Ojai," one of several tunes from "Supernova" set in Southern California.
Switching to keyboards, Ethan Gruska applied some rough textures to "Airwaves" that cut against the song's delicate thrum. And all the players used the church's echo-chamber sonics to their advantage in a spooky rendition of "Gossip in the Grain," the title track from LaMontagne's 2008 album.
If the music was summoning a heady vibe, though, LaMontagne himself appeared unable (or unwilling) to take it anywhere; his singing was weirdly inert, rarely developing an emotion to a recognizably lifelike degree. Songs began in one gear and simply stayed there, as though he were relying on the various associations the music was triggering to complete his thoughts.
That distance has always been part of his approach, even in older songs such as "Trouble" and "You Are the Best Thing," both of which have boosted LaMontagne's profile thanks to regular appearances on the TV singing competition circuit. (Perhaps it's their very blankness that endears the tunes to contestants trying to make an impression of their own.)
But here the effect was stifling, at least until the end of the show.
That's when LaMontagne shook off some of that throwback gauziness for a hard-driving — and borderline-creepy — version of "Meg White," a love song of sorts addressed to the drummer of the White Stripes. Minutes later, he closed with "Drive-In Movies," a new tune that traces his journey from childhood to having kids of his own.
"Never thought I could be a dad," he sang quietly but directly, finally offering the crowd what felt like a bit of himself. "Now I know the things that I didn't know."