By: Eric Zimmermann
Ray LaMontagne's third album, Gossip in the Grain (RCA Victor) was billed as an artistic step forward for the reclusive singer-songwriter from New England's backwoods. But the change here is marginal, and that's a good thing. There are few unforced errors to be found in this subtle, textured if at times placid collection of songs.
LaMontagne's debut, Trouble, garnered well-earned comparisons to Van Morrison. Both warm and heart wrenching, Trouble, on the strength of the sensational title track, catapulted LaMontagne into the spotlight, a place he never seems entirely comfortable in. Till The Sun Turns Back was a darker, quieter affair. Mournful strings accentuated the beautifully sad "Can I Stay" and "Empty" revealed a tortured soul struggling to accept happiness. "Well I looked my demons in the eyes/ laid bare my chest/ said 'Do your best to destroy me.' / You see, I've been to hell and back so many times, I must admit you kind of bore me."
Gossip in the Grain finds LaMontagne emerging from this emotional wilderness. Here, LaMontagne seems to announce his recovery in the opening track, "You Are The Best Thing." Soulful, celebratory horns declare that LaMontagne is once again relishing the redemptive power of love, a theme on Trouble, that largely disappeared in the more pessimistic sophomore effort. Motown style backup singers hint at overproduction in the vein of Phil Spector but that trend fortunately dissipates quickly.
Perhaps the strongest songs are those most reminiscent of his past work. On "Sarah," LaMontagne regrets the naive mistakes of a youthful relationship, his emotionalism punctuated by well placed lyrical detail: "Sharing a seat on a train with a lady whose crying has ruined her makeup."
"A Falling Through" reverts to LaMontagne's undeniable musical strength - the eerily perfect chord changes that made Trouble such a simplistic and powerful debut. It's almost unfair to quote the song's lyrics, as their willful innocence can't be fully expressed when not communicated with the stunning beauty of Ray LaMontagne's raspy voice.
But there is novelty here. "Henry Nearly Killed Me (It's A Shame)" is gritty, western rock with frenetic guitar and whaling harmonics reminiscent of Dylan's "Tombstone Blues." "Meg White" is a humorous ode to the White Stripes drummer, and "Hey Me, Hey Mama" is a folksy, playful romp where LaMontagne evokes a rustic, romanticized county scene and then pines after the farm girl. Dedicated fans will likely divide over how the song compares to an earlier, more mournful live version.
Unavoidable on any LaMontagne album is that voice. He doesn't overwrite his lyrics, allowing him to draw out every syllable in his desperate and stunning baritone. LaMontagne shines when he gets out of his own way and allows his unadulterated emotionalism to take over. Fortunately for us, that's the case most of the time with Gossip.
JamBase | Big Ol' Feelings
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