By: Dennis Cook
It's always heartening when an artist opens an album with something that feels new, even as it gives us that hit of the familiar. God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise (released August 17 on RCA), the fourth long-player from Ray LaMontagne, begins with "Repo Man," a bumptious rocker with tangible groove & growl. This is not the teary-eyed, sensitive singer-songwriter that's sadly become LaMontagne's soundbite, but it is part of a complex artist who keeps moving past preconceptions with each successive release.
|Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs|
"It's funny how the initial round of press has such staying power. It's maddening for me," observes LaMontagne. "This whole impression that I'm introverted to level of autism is so completely untrue. Writers will come to shows and build on that constantly. It's very frustrating. I guess if you're not swinging a guitar over your back and pointing & smiling at people in the audience, then somehow you don't want to be there. That's just not the case. I immerse myself in the music and the musicians I'm playing with. Obviously, if I didn't want to be doing this I wouldn't. I love making records and playing live, and I feel really lucky to be able to do both. But those early impressions sure stick around."
For the first time on an album, LaMontagne shares top billing with his band, a stunning, critic sanctioned ensemble which includes top-gun guitar/stringed-things players Eric Heywood and Greg Leisz, as well as touring keyboardist Patrick Warren, an under-sung ace who's worked with Michael Penn & Aimee Mann for years. The name of LaMontagne's band, The Pariah Dogs, conveys a lot in a few words - a sense of foreboding, perhaps something apocalyptic – and finds its origins in India, where it refers to packs of feral hounds. "I just liked the sound of it," says LaMontagne. "It rolls off the tongue."
The core of the band has played together for years, but very rarely all together at once. The rhythm section of Jay Bellerose (drums) and Jennifer Condos (bass) have been with LaMontagne off & on since his second album, Till The Sun Turns Black.
"We're all really close as friends but also I think we just communicate really well," offers LaMontagne. "They're all so great just as human beings, and as musicians they all have such unique voices. No one plays like Greg and the same goes for Jen and Jay. They all have such beautiful, individual voices. For people that really listen, these guys are insane. It's a dream for me to play with these guys and get them on the record."
LaMontagne's music lends itself to this sort of empathetic, aware musicianship, where the subtlety of various components matters, small, intelligent choices adding the necessary texture and wow to his carefully honed compositions and thoughtful vocal style. And the shared intuition of this group also filters into their renditions of LaMontagne's earlier catalog, which continues to evolve in their care as they've toured worldwide this year.
"I kind of live it and breath it, so I can't really see the changes. It just happens naturally. I don't consciously think about it. We just play the songs," says LaMontagne. "Dylan, I guess, is kind of a grotesque extreme to this idea [of song evolution]. If you see him now, the melodies to the early songs have just sort of disappeared. It's really bizarre. That's just drastic and not enjoyable for the listener. You have to remember there's a listener on the other side, and they want to hear something familiar, a melody that's familiar. As a vocalist, I want it to be fresh for myself. I try to approach it and sing it effectively every night. You don't want to change it up so much that people don't recognize it or enjoy it anymore."
Melody is central to LaMontagne's work, something evident in the more meditative pieces on God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise. His songs linger, even the sad ones, because they provide a tuneful companion. Where some songs bum-rush one, LaMontagne's saunter in and take a seat nearby and wait for us to join them.
"That's what I love about songs, and I'm always trying to get better at it. I'm always trying to open myself up more when a song comes knocking, to be patient with it and allow the melody to reveal itself. And even in the revision process, I strive to be open to hearing what it wants to be," says LaMontagne. "Songs reveal themselves to you. You can't sit down and make a song happen. If you do that, the song is going to suck."
"I have good instincts about, well, everything, I think, just in life. I'm not saying that in an egotistical way. I've just found that to be the case in my life," says LaMontagne, whose music requires listeners to focus and open up if they're to fully experience it. Sure, his music could be background noise at a Starbuck's but that's not why it was created. "I'm proud of that. That's what I love about music. That's what the albums that mean the most to me, and most great albums, are about – listening. You've got to spend time with them and get to know them if you want to hear the nuances."
"To take my own stuff, on my new record there's a song called 'New York City's Killing Me,' and you can hear Eric working out his part. He did it so quick, and the whole record was done so quickly. What you're hearing are really instantaneous responses to the material, which the band hadn't heard prior to the sessions. We recorded it in five days, which meant two tracks per day," says LaMontagne. "It made me realize just how amazing these guys are. I always knew they were incredible but then when I listened to the album, knowing they'd just heard these songs, maybe in the car about an hour and a half before the take, it's pretty astounding. By the last chorus of 'New York City's Killing Me,' he gets a little melodic hook he plays on pedal steel. If there were a quote/unquote producer in the room besides me, they would have undoubtedly made us do it again and had Eric play that hook throughout the song. What I love about it is how you can hear him finding that hook."
|Ray LaMontagne by Adam McCullough|
Moments like this - which can't be premeditated but are happily captured for perpetuity - are often the cores of great albums. Happenstance and lightning inspiration should never be discounted, something LaMontagne understands full well.
"For the near future at least, it's how I plan to make albums," says LaMontagne. "The control freak in me likes to be in control [laughs]. I certainly wouldn't rule out working with a producer, but it would have to be an inspired thing. I'd have to go in feeling it was gonna work. Like I said, I have good instincts and I trust myself. Right now, [self-producing my latest album] was an important step for me, to make a record in my own space. I don't really have a studio. I just have a big, beautiful room that's just amazing. And Ryan Freeland (Aimee Mann, Crowded House, Son Volt) brought his remote gear in and expertly engineered the sessions. He's got this great rig with all these tube amps. All he'd seen was some photographs of the space and he just rolled in and made it look really effortless. He was set up in a few hours and immediately started getting beautiful sounds."
In many respects, God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise is Ray LaMontagne's most unforced song cycle. This is simply the next chapter in the story of a serious singer, songwriter and musician smart enough to surround himself with the best players around and then let nature take its course. While the gentle sway of "Are We Really Through" and "For The Summer" will appeal to fans still hoping he'll remake Trouble one day, but more open-minded ears will find a good deal of bounce in cuts like "Like Rock & Roll And Radio" and "Devil's In The Jukebox." LaMontagne's empathy for his fellow humans remains strong, but it's now joined by a sly caustic edge that's terrific and just as human as all the sighs and handholding that's made him so beloved. In short, today's Ray LaMontagne is more well rounded than ever and the music's nothing but better for it.
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