albums, music

Back Up In The Country: Ray LaMontagne

Ray LaMontagne’s career has in some ways been one of self-restraint, if not outright self-denial. His debut album, Trouble, was a pared-down affair, a raw selection of country-soul confessionals made exceptional by a searing, tearing voice. Live, this is the quality which still most characterises his music – he seems at the microphone an almost unwilling channel for emotions he would rather not feel.

On his subsequent records, however, LaMontagne has set out to offer more context to his voice, sinking it into lusher arrangements, or resting it atop more delicate songcraft. He has perfected a kind of weary passion, and in his voice now is a kind of pained wisdom. His best record remains his second, Till The Sun Goes Black, a tonally varied cluster of songs which drew on a broad pallete of roots music – soul, blues, folk – but refracted them through production values, event tricks, rarely employed by his folky contemporaries.

After the disappointment of the relatively slight Gossip In The Grain, on which that voice was almost wilfully hushed, now comes God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise, a record put together with the aid of ‘The Pariah Dogs’, a band consisting largely of his touring musicians. That band is rather wonderful, in truth – tight and testy, disciplined but also ready to wig out (albeit tastefully) – and they provide deceptively low-key backing here on a clutch of warm, sunlit slices of unashamed Americana.

Indeed, this first self-produced record (and the first without Ethan Johns, too)  is in terms of mode the most consistent that LaMontagne has made since Trouble. Where his previous two records skipped between instrumentations and intent, these latest songs are happy as formally unified acoustic hoedowns and steel guitar struts. It’s an album with no pretensions, and though the band once again gives that voice something to hide behind, it is also a clearer centre of gravity: you get a sense that the Pariah Dogs also provide it with a natural home. God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise is in this sense a comfortable album – but who doesn’t need something to sink into every now and then? There’ll be a track on Fifty Miles of Elbow Room this weekend.

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