It seems that Ray LaMontagne is finally growing comfortable in his own skin and with his popularity as a professional singer/songwriter. That may have something to do with having a full time band backing him. The Pariah Dogs — bassist Jennifer Condos, guitarists Eric Heywood and pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz, keyboardist Patrick Warren and drummer Jay Bellerose — have been recording and touring with LaMontagne for a couple of years now. More to the point, God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise, his fourth CD, was entirely self-produced and recorded over a two-week period in his restored historic home/studio in Western Massachusetts. That makes this his first studio record made without the mega producer/tastemaker Ethan Johns guiding him through the process.
Some critics have lauded LaMontagne as the second coming of Van Morrison, a new Dylan, or a young soul man, as with Gossip in the Grain. With God Willin’…. he seems to be embracing his inner Neil Young, ala the Harvest era. Leisz’s beautiful pedal steel playing is present on every track but one (and its sorely missed on that one), and LaMontagne adds harmonica to the final three. And he’s always been a songwriter’s songwriter, putting lyrics and his soulful, husky growl upfront.
Opener “Repo Man” sounds as though it could be a holdover from the Gossip sessions; with thumping upright bass and groovy electric guitar, it’s got a bluesy, funky New Orleans’ vibe, which is slightly out of place with the rest of the songs from this collection. Yet, with an upbeat, rolling rhythm, it’s also arguably the most radio friendly, despite or maybe, in spite of its scorned man lyrical content about not taking back a ex lover who has come crawling back after being dumped by yet another of her boy toys. “It’s like you think I got revolving doors on my house / Like you can just come and go as you please. I’m ‘bout to do what your daddy shoulda done / I’m gonna lay you right across my knee.”
The mood and tempo take a dramatic turn on the somber lament, “New York City’s Killing Me”, and the title track. Leisz’s steel guitar wail mirrors LaMontagne’s plaintive and emotional lyrics about a city where, “…no one looks you in the eyes/no one asks you how are you doing? / They don’t seem to care if you live or if you die.” The goal for the contemplative cattle herder of the title track is just to make it back to his loved one by this time next year.
“Beg Steal or Borrow”, on the other hand, is a mid-tempo shuffle that implores a young man to do whatever it takes to fulfill his dreams and get out of small town, family farmhand living. With dulcet steel guitar and rat-a-tat-tat percussion, it’s one of the best songs of the 10 here. The mellow, acoustic tearjerker “Are We Really Through” and the following “This Love Is Over” are placid, mournful, heartbroken ballads that tear the heart from the chest. Of the two, the latter is the more melodic and listenable, with a lithesome, late night blues melody.
The Neil Young influence is quite blatant on the final four songs, and that’s meant in a positive manner. LaMontagne has been a private introvert, hesitant to share details of his songwriting inspirations in interviews. But anyone who’s paid a bit of attention will recognize the lovely “Old Before Your Time” as autobiographical and the gently plucked banjo will ease your ass down on the back porch steps for a listen. “For the Summer” is a direct descendant of Harvest’s “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold”, a beautifully sung love song with dulcet acoustic guitars intertwined with harmony electric guitar, rumbling, yet not heavy percussion and soft but sweet harmonica. And the solemn lead harmonica throughout the acoustic, contemplative six-minute love song “Like Rock and Roll & Radio” is pure ‘70s era solo Young. The closer, “The Devil’s in the Jukebox” bookends the CD back at the knee slapping, foot stomping, rhythm & blues, and one could easily find “Mr. Soul” lurking in there.
Much like another Johns’ produced prolific songwriting prodigy — Ryan Adams — Lamontagne might have been wise to at least consult with Johns’ fine musical ears prior to releasing this recording. While it’s not nearly as dark or brooding as Till The Sun Turns Black, there are several songs that may be too utterly mournful and depressing for many listeners. The way too mellow, sparse and sorrowful “Are We Really Through” would have been best left on the cutting room floor. It’s his most country sounding CD yet, with lovely pedal steel and banjo and harmonica backing his melodious vocals. There’s no mistaking it, Lamontagne’s target audience is not the tween-agers nor the youth market at all. This recording will reach a largely under appreciated adult contemporary market.