[15 October 2008]
Ray LaMontagne likes to keep a low profile. The Jesus-bearded troubadour is sort of a recluse. He doesn’t enjoy doing interviews, refuses to make music videos, and hates reviews of his work—be they positive or negative. But for all the coffeehouse hacks trying to emulate Bob Dylan’s verbosity and Van Morrison’s impassioned croon, there’s the soft-spoken Ray LaMontagne, singing his own wistful tunes without the weight of pretension and the hype of MTV.
Last year, the singer followed up Trouble, his debut UK chart-topper, with the more solemn, introspective album Till the Sun Turns Black. Working once again with venerable producer Ethan Johns, LaMontagne flavored his forlorn love tunes with the likes of Rachel Yamagata and John Medeski’s Wurlitzer.
Now we get Gossip in the Grain, the artist’s most cohesive, career-defining album to date. Most notably, the folksy balladeer takes a backseat here. Where LaMontagne usually places his forlorn lyrics over some gentle strumming, the supporting cast takes center stage here as Gossip in the Grain is LaMontagne’s first album with what would be considered a full band. “It was time to open up a little bit more, not be quite so reserved in my choice of songs that I wanted to record,” Ray explains about Gossip in a press release.
Recorded in Box, England, with his perennial producer Ethan Johns, Gossip in the Grain isn’t afraid to use all the weapons at its disposal, tying strings, pianos, gospel vox, and pedal steel to LaMontagne’s humble folk tunes. Ray channels his favorite theme of salvation through the love of a woman with the gut-wrenching soul lament “You Are the Best Thing”. Despite his scrawny frame, LaMontagne can sometimes approach a full-bodied baritone, and here he displays it in the depth of a soul singer. (“I’m eventually learned to sing from here,” he once said in an interview, alluding to his stomach.)
“Sarah” is a sprawling sentimental number where LaMontagne reminisces over some soothing strings and unobtrusive finger-picking. A tender reverie of his youth, he pleads, “Sarah, is it ever gonna be the same?” “A Falling Through” is vaguely similar to Trouble’s “All the Wild Horses”, mostly because Ray and his guitar come to the fore this time, leaving most of the band behind except for some pedal steel and backing vox. The latter is provided by the docile Leona Naess, harmonizing on the chorus of “Why did you go, away”. Ray even takes a brief dip into Dixieland with the rootsy foot-stomper “Hey Me, Hey Mamma”, a rare laidback moment where the artist actually seems to be having a good time.
There is one baffling track, however. The painfully obvious homage to Meg White is either a form of insincere flattery or a sappy love song, take your pick. Probably the most simple and raucous song on Gossip, “Meg White” has Ray claiming that Ms. White is “mighty fine”, “the bomb”, and even fantasizing about riding “bikes down by the seaside”. Yeah, I don’t get it. Maybe it’s an effort to hold the short attentions of those who enjoyed his cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”. Whatever the case, the song isn’t half bad sans the jokester lyrics, so I’ll give Ray a pass on this one.
While Ray may not have exorcised his demons here, Gossip in the Grain shows that he is not some drug-addled, half-baked songwriter. It is perhaps the artist’s anti-social behavior which makes him so likable to some and so detestable to others. And what this record, and his behavior, show is that we might be dealing with some troubled genius here. But really, what other type of genius is there?