released August 17th, 2010
from the album - New York City's Killin' Me
from all music
With a voice that recalls a huskier, sandpaper version of Van Morrison and Tim Buckley, Ray LaMontagne joins such artists as Iron & Wine in creating folk songs that are alternately lush and intimately earthy. The songwriter was born in Nashua, New Hampshire in 1973; his parents split up shortly after his birth, and his mother began a pattern of moving her six children to any locale that could offer her employment and housing. As a result, LaMontagne grew up as the perennial new kid in school (when and if he went to school at all). He did graduate high school, however, and found himself working in a shoe factory in Maine when he heard Stephen Stills' "Tree Top Flyer" on the radio. The song amounted to an epiphany for LaMontagne, who made up his mind on the spot to become a singer and musician.
By the summer of 1999, LaMontagne had put together a ten-song demo tape that soon found its way into the hands of Jamie Ceretta at Chrysalis Music Publishing. The publishing house signed the young songwriter and teamed him with producer Ethan Johns, resulting in LaMontagne's debut album, Trouble. The record was picked up by RCA Records and released in the fall of 2004, impressing critics with such songs as the title tune, "Trouble," and the cinematic style of pieces like "Narrow Escape." A follow-up album for the RCA label, Till the Sun Turns Black, appeared in 2006 and widened LaMontagne's palette by incorporating horns and strings. Gossip in the Grain followed in 2008.
It's ironic that the first Ray LaMontagne album to list a band's name on the cover is also his first solo flight. God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise is his fourth full-length, but it is the first without producer Ethan Johns — LaMontagne helmed the session at his home studio and it is mostly a loose, laid-back affair with a couple of exceptions. The Pariah Dogs — bassist Jennifer Condos, guitarists Eric Heywood and Greg Leisz, and drummer Jay Bellerose — have recorded and/or toured with him previously. The opener, "Repo Man," is the album's wild card. Introduced by a popping upright bassline, it's a gritty funk number that's totally out of place with the rest of what's here. Bellerose plays tight breaks, the guitars roil and coil, and LaMontagne's protagonist indicts a former lover, spitting out lyrics in a grainy, swaggering growl. The album changes direction abruptly on "New York Is Killing Me." It's a sad country song whose title reveals a longing for somewhere else as Leisz's pedal steel guitar twins with LaMontagne's world-weary voice. The title track is a love letter from a cattle driver to his beloved back at home. Bellerose's deeply tuned snare and tom-toms are balanced by two pedal steels underscoring the otherworldly loneliness in the grain of LaMontagne's voice. "Beg Steal or Borrow" is a midtempo shuffle that exhorts a younger man to just go; to fulfill his dreams at any cost. Two broken love songs — "Are We Really Through" and "This Love Is Over" — seem to echo the sentiments in "Repo Man," albeit far more gently. Both are skeletal and moody; the latter touches on the soul balladry LaMontagne's known for, but with a jazzy touch in the guitars. It's the best cut here. "Old Before Your Time" is the brother to "Beg Steal or Borrow": it reveals the consequences — perhaps to the man in the mirror — if the admonitions in the previous tune are not adhered to. "For the Summer" feels like loosely composed filler. The overly long "Like Rock and Roll Radio" stretches a metaphor to its breaking point and a tired beyond. "Devil's in the Jukebox," an uptempo country stomper adorned with reverbed snare, kick drum, LaMontagne's wailing harmonica, and Leisz's resonator slide guitar and mandola, redeems the album somewhat at its close. God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise is a mixed bag. There's fine stuff here to be sure, but as a whole, it feels unbalanced; too much of one sound makes it drag a bit. Given that this is his debut as a producer, it's not unexpected; but after his previous trio of fine recordings, this one feels anticlimactic.
1 Repo Man LaMontagne 6:08
2 New York City's Killing Me LaMontagne 4:13
3 God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise LaMontagne 3:10
4 Beg Steal or Borrow LaMontagne 4:32
5 Are We Really Through LaMontagne 4:59
6 This Love Is Over LaMontagne 3:30
7 Old Before Your Time LaMontagne 4:04
8 For the Summer LaMontagne 3:52
9 Like Rock & Roll and Radio LaMontagne 6:05
10 The Devil's in the Jukebox LaMontagne 3:59