|Gossip in the Grain | Released by Ray LaMontagne on RCA Records | October 14 | see him with Leona Naess at the Opera House, in Boston | October 9 & 10|
Ray LaMontagne’s debut, Trouble, left him compared favorably with the likes of Van Morrison in Rolling Stone -- and even covered on American Idol. But that album's follow-up Till the Sun Turns Black “asks a lot of the listener,” he says. “I’ll always be really proud of that record, for a lot of reasons, but I didn’t want to ask so much this time.” On Black he was the anti-Clinton: He wanted you to feel his pain.
On LaMontagne’s new Gossip in the Grain (RCA), he’s having a lot more fun. There are still plenty of songs that will rip your heart out and flay you bare (no one delivers a line more plaintively than Ray’s “Why did you go?/Why did you go away?”), but things aren’t as close to that whole sun-winking-out-and-the-world-made-ice thing. Maybe it’s the revelatory voice of Leona Naess, who accompanies LaMontagne on two of his darker tunes, shining like the proverbial tunnel’s end. Maybe it’s the loose, one-take front-porch old-timey blues of “Hey Me, Hey Mama” and “Henry Almost Killed Me (It’s a Shame),” songs that revel in the tradition of reveling in hard times. Maybe it’s the simple and awe-inspiring exuberance of the R&B-fueled single and album-opener, “You Are the Best Thing,” which puts LaMontagne in the place of Joe Cocker or Otis Redding as big-band leader.
Regardless, this third collaboration with producer Ethan Johns finally seems to fully deliver on LaMontagne’s enormous promise as a songwriter and performer. It is an effortless flexing of muscles, LaMontagne sifting through genres without even seeming conscious of it.
“It’s just another batch of songs, really,” LaMontagne says. “I’m just doing the same thing I always do. I’m just writing songs and trying to trust my gut, that I’m making a record that’s good, that will hold up.”
Part of the album’s coherence, despite its versatility, must surely come from the talents of LaMontagne’s touring partners, bassist Jennifer Condos and guitarist Eric Heywood. They, along with Johns on most of the drum parts, teamed with LaMontagne’s distinctive rhythm strum on the acoustic guitar to create (at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios, in Box, England), songs both atmospheric and raw, world-weary and wide-eyed.
A ukulele and classical guitar combine in “Sarah” to create a southern European vibe, like sitting in a villa watching a shepherd lead goats past the front door. It’s tight fingerpicking and a rustling percussion: “Now I see just how young and scared I was ... Sarah, is it ever gonna be the same?”
Clearly, not, but he’s okay with that: “Nothing lasts forever/Guess by now I should know.”
The Black version of LaMontagne could never have released the stormy fun of “Meg White,” a stomping and aggressive ode to the White Stripes drummer that’s as much vamp as it is deadly serious. Except that it has this Beatles-sweet chorus at its heart, with an alternating pump organ and lilting backing vocals: “Some day I’d like to take a walk with you/Maybe take a walk down by the seaside.” What a cool and manic piece.
And right after that he’s counting off the Dixieland jive of “Hey Me, Hey Mama” and suppressing a giggle. “You can really hear that we captured something there,” LaMontagne says. “I was just basically showing them the song, and Jennifer jumped on the drums and Ethan grabbed his uke, and we just kind of did it, holding on by the seat of our pants, just for fun.” The late-song trumpet and clarinet were surely added in later, but it doesn’t strip the song of any immediacy.
The album closes with its namesake, a closely mic’d vocal piece with tape-hiss like a whistling wind, toy piano, a spare acoustic guitar strum, a haunting flute line, and lyrics that read like The Wind in the Willows as written by Edgar Allen Poe: “Callous is the old crow/He’d mock even the sun/Eyes as black as blood, won’t crack in craw/He’d say, he’d say, always nevermind.” A bowed bass line cuts through the piece, and in the finish LaMontagne moves to an impassioned higher register final verse before cutting out as quickly as he came in, with four notes of toy piano to say goodbye.
No, this album doesn’t ask as much — it gives so much more. LaMontagne may have torn himself open for all to see on Black, but we never got a good look at him until now.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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