Ray LaMontagne

Ray LaMontagne

on .

Popular lore tells us that a then-shoe-factory-working Ray LaMontagne woke up early one morning to a tune by Stephen Stills – his predawn experience led the young ruffian to buy the Stills Alone album, and subsequently leave behind his old life to become a musician. Fast forward: it’s four years after his acclaimed first release, Trouble, which has sold hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide. Trouble gave us a glimpse into the Ray’s personal depth, and the lyrical and creative journey he puts himself through. In Till the Sun Turns Black (2006) LaMontagne ventured a little further outside his solitary skin, expanding instrumentation and collaboration. The content was heavy, but it was real. It was genuine. It was poetry—standard fare for LaMontagne, who has been called by many the “next great American poet.”

Thankfully Ray LaMontagne is back, this time with his greatest accomplishment to date, Gossip in the Grain. Those that enjoyed Ray’s first two albums will relish this new release like a deep breath of cool Maine coastline. Without a doubt LaMontagne – joined again by producer/drummer/friend Ethan Johns – has in Gossip both remembered and respected the kind of songwriting that earned him the hearts of thousands of faithful fans and critics in his two prior albums. Make no mistake: the words you’ll hear spare no cushion or filter, and suggest nothing simpler than LaMontagne’s solitary conviction. Recorded with the touring band – Johns (drums), Jennifer Condos (bass), and Eric Haywood (guitar) — in the studio for the first time, Gossip in the Grain is a more elaborate album stylistically. It includes plenty of instrumentation, from horns to clarinets to banjos, flutes and beyond. One true strength of Gossip is its eclectic genre-dabbling; LaMontagne is not bound by soft and lonely melodies and acoustic patterns. He moves between bluesy R&B riffs, lively New Orleans jazz, and classic folk anthems like a pioneer. If Till the Sun Turns Black was LaMontagne’s darkest hour, Gossip is a return of hope.

“You Are the Best Thing,” like “Trouble,” is one of Ray’s great openers (not to diminish “Be Here Now”), featuring a great horn section and the return of the hopeful, soulful LaMontagne. Remembering a powerful love, this song says nothing can stop us from living to everything that follows. It’s a song that prepares listeners for the rest of the album, and is by far Gossip’s most upbeat track. The same liveliness can be heard at different points throughout the rest of the album, like in “Hey Me, Hey Mama,” and “Henry Nearly Killed Me (It’s A Shame),” but never is it given as much room to gather steam as it is in the opener. You can tell LaMontagne is two (or three, maybe) parts melancholy for every one part cheerful, and while much more positive than Till the Sun Turns Black, Gossip is no exception to that rule.

While the strum patterns of “Sara” will not disappoint the inescapable Nick Drake referencers, LaMontagne jumps into some different styles with “Hey Me, Hey Mama” (Dixie/New Orleans jazz), and “Henry Nearly Killed Me (It’s A Shame), which chugs along like a steam engine conducted by Elvis, Cash, and Dylan. Gossip’s mortar includes ballads like “Let It Be Me,” “I Still Care for You,” “A Falling Through,” and the title track, “Gossip in the Grain”.

The Ray LaMontagne who sometimes likes to turn off all the lights in order to disconnect himself during live performances has begun—despite his reclusiveness—to change songwriting one lyric at a time, and has garnered a serious following. People recognize Ray’s committed heart, introspective nature, and courageous songwriting as things that can and should be changing music today. Gossip in the Grain does nothing but expound on Ray’s character. For many dedicated fans, it would be hard to rank Ray’s work, and Gossip makes that undertaking all the more challenging, since it’s both a standard and a new frontier at the same time. Ray LaMontagne is growing, taking his music seriously and protecting it from becoming contrived in any way. Like an oak tree, I think the music’s beauty comes with age.

Highlight Tracks: “You Are the Best Thing,” “Sara,” “Henry Nearly Killed Me (It’s a Shame)”


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