Ray Lamontagne, everyone's favourite grizzly bear mountain man with a voice that can melt stone and iron hearts, releases his third album 'Gossip In The Grain'. There are major differences from his previous albums: this is less of a solo project bringing in Lamontagne's touring band and in his own words he wants to "open up a little bit more". This immediately hints at lack of inspiration and the phrase "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" comes to mind. But in branching out and trying to be different, the New Hampshire singer song writer has achieved a remarkable thing. It actually works.
Opening song 'You Are The Best Thing' kicks off with a blast of big band horns before Lamontagne's wonderful gruff yet soulful voice launches into what it does best. The song is a simple offering, with a less than inspired chorus, lots of repetition, some Motown backing vocals and a neat 'happy' vibe. It proves to be a deceptive start. Things settle down with 'Let It Be Me', a gorgeous ballad of hope and longing: "Feels like you're always coming up last; Pockets full of nothing ain't got no cash; No matter where you turn you ain't got no place to stand; You reach out for something and they slap your hand". The music around him lets Lamontagne always do his thing - he is always at the centre even when the piano and strings begin to rise. 'Sarah' brings in a third style: delicate winding instrumentation underpinning a more earnest, soft and urgent vocal performance. A central string break provides a brief respite.
From the outset 'I Still Care For You' is more loose and ragged around the edges. But the song immediately softens into a breathy ethereal chorus and rolling drums. The first contribution from Leona Naess almost goes by unnoticed. The last minute and a half briefly transforms into something much more organic before more of the same. 'Winter Birds' is an atmospheric poetic ramble of a love song - one of those songs that is difficult to pin down thanks to the lack of a defined structure. Six songs in and we are treated to a huge surprise. 'Meg White' (yes, the one from The White Stripes) is a no holds barred (ironic or otherwise) tale of love and obsession. It starts like a Ennio Morricone western score then quickly into thumping drums (a tribute indeed) and Lamontagne declaring that "Someday I'd like to take a walk with you; maybe ride our bikes down by the seaside". The line "Oh Jack is great, don't get me wrong...but this is your song" is bordering on comedy. All this with Pink Floyd style backing vocals and a slightly creepy vocal arrangement adds to the insanity. Totally unexpected and utterly brilliant.
'Hey Me, Hey Mama' does not quite get the album back on track but it is more familiar - a slick old-fashioned country-blues number that never lifts from mid-tempo drawl. The brass section in the second half is a nice touch and even when a horrible chord change is dropped in, it all holds together. 'Henry Nearly Killed Me (It's A Shame)' veers left once more with dark brooding railroad blues. Halfway through when Lamontagne begins panting like a dog, you get the feeling he really wants to just let go - but he never does. 'A Falling Through' is much more of what we expect, but sounds a bit of a let down given the surprises that have come before. Saying that however, it is a wonderful heartfelt ballad, again with Naess on backing vocals - this time more obvious and relevant. The subtle complexity of the music is incredible. The title track closes the album in understated style with a beautiful arrangement into the final minute - one of the best moments of the album. Then Lamontagne parting shot: "Truth be: Beggar that holds his tongue; Dines on none...none but air alone".
In spite of every attempt to "open up" and try new things, 'Gossip In The Grain' still plays it very safe. Producer Ethan Johns still adds to the mix but the musical contribution from others is much more consistent. It feels more complete, and even with the unexpected twist in the middle of the album, this just adds to the album exactly when it needs to do something different; something more. This is not the huge disastrous experiment which befalls many artists. On the contrary: this is a rewarding, consistent and compelling piece of work.
13th October 2008, 14th Floor Records
-- CS (for Last Broadcast)