Review: Ray LaMontagne’s “Gossip In The Grain”

Oct 29, 2008 11:14am

Ray LaMontagne is a folkie from Northern New England with a woodsy beard and a honey-soaked, R&B-ready set of pipes.  Despite his northern roots, when he sings, his voice simmers with an uncanny southern soul.  His high, haunting voice has been his distinctive trademark since he debuted in 2004 with the album and single, “Trouble.”  Two years later, he bested that excellent album with the even earthier, more intricate follow-up, “‘Till the Sun Turns Black.”
“Gossip In The Grain” is LaMontagne’s third album and it continues to set the bar at the same impressively high level.  He comes off as a mysterious, soulful loner.  His songs are often sad laments and his vocal tone beckons you into his deeply atmospheric recordings.  Producer, Ethan Johns skillfully makes all these songs come to life with vintage warmth.  He was behind the boards for LaMontagne’s other records as well, giving them an old-school, back-to-vinyl feel.  You haven’t really listened to Ray LaMontagne until you’ve turned up one of his songs full blast and let its buttery goodness melt out of your speakers.  The album starts on an upbeat note with the heavily Stax-influenced “You Are the Best Thing.”  Backed by a kicked-up horn section, he busts out like Otis Redding, singing, “You are the best thing that ever happened to me.”  The song’s righteous joy contrasts the solemn moments to come.  In fact even in this song, some of LaMontagne’s lyrics elude to him being down. He sings, “Things ain’t been going my way and you know I need you here.  You clear my mind all the time.”   It’s an anthem extolling the benefits of true, honest love.   It doesn’t get much better than this! “Let It Be Me” is a slow, backporch-blues waltz meant to be listened to on a hot summer night with someone you love.  LaMontagne’s sense of longing in the chorus gives the track venom.  I bet in a live setting, this song is a killer! “Sarah,” with its acoustic strumming and slow strings vaguely recalls the lush sonic density of Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic.”  LaMontagne’s delivery is heartfelt, like an old man telling a tale of his first glimpse of true love.  It’s beautiful and mournful at the same time.  Few performers today could summon such impressive, natural power.  “I Still Care For You” is even more astounding.  LaMontagne enters with a whispery, ghostly, echo-drenched presence.  Like a phantom, he floats over the track. It makes him sound other-worldly.  This is where Johns’ production is at its peak.  Every instrument sounds like it’s in the room with you.  The most beautiful moment comes late in the track when for an instant the echo-effect is lessened and the song gets an almost Medieval tone.  He sings, “The hours grow heavy, and hollow and cruel as a grave. Open me and you’ll find only bones burned to glass.”  Such moments can only leave you awe-struck.  “Winter Birds” finds LaMontagne flexing his muscles as a folk-singer.  Much like its title, this epic, six-minute track summons snowy images of woodland creatures frolicking in a field.  Mentions of a woman perhaps indicate that this is either a veiled love-letter or more likely a metaphorical examination of a love that has run its course.  Like the leafless trees and the shortening days, love too must sometimes wither away and grow cold.  Next is the album’s oddest moment.  “Meg White” is a strange ode to the famous White Stripes drummer.  LaMontagne’s normally complex lyrics become extremely straight-forward. (“Meg White, you’re alright. /  Fact: I think you’re pretty swell.”)  The tone of the song gets a little uncomfortable and almost stalker-like at times, but it still sounds amazing.  There’s a bit of a stomp to the track, reminiscent of White’s signature pounded-out style.  The point of the song is that Jack White may get most of the glory, but Meg deserves some attention as well.  It’s a drippy love-letter.  It sounds like diary entry written by a smitten teenager, yet somehow it still works. “Hey Me, Hey Mama” is a banjo-driven country-blues which at times verges on a slow New Orleans-style rag.  It sounds like the kind of song the Beatles would’ve given to Ringo and had him sing on a lark.  It’s an enjoyable exercise and it helps LaMontagne show his range.  Speaking of the Beatles, “Henry Nearly Killed Me (It’s A Shame)” sounds like a more menacing cousin to “Get Back.”  LaMontagne unearths his old bluesman side as he sings, “It’s a shame, shame, shame!” He pants over a train-like, churning rhythm, while a harmonica honks along with him.  Much like the rest of this album, this song would be hard to date as current.  “A Falling Through” is another sad love song.  Subtle slide guitar-work gives the track some atmospheric punch.  As he sings the chorus, “Why did you go?” along with omnipresent guest, Leona Naess, he sounds like his heart’s been broken and he’s about to break into tears.  LaMontagne brings a unique authenticity to such sad material.  The title track closes the record.  It begins with a quiet keyboard and almost eerie clarinet solo.  As it progresses, the lyrics sound like something from a twisted parable.  (“Grown callous is the old Crow, / He’d mock even the sun, / Eyes as black as blood / Bone crack in the craw.”) In LaMontagne’s strange world, this dark moment seems like a fitting way to end.  If the first track sounded revitalizing, this one sounds very death-like.  The album has successfully run its cycle.  “Gossip In The Grain” is an interesting, skillful and bizarre trip.  It should please an eclectic collection of music fans.  Ray LaMontagne has set himself up for the ages with this timeless collection.   

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