With his remarkable, rough hewn vocals and evocative, finely etched songs, Ray LaMontagne has, in but a few short years, become the rare artist of whom the world waits with to see what each new work will reveal. Now, on his much anticipated third album, the Maine-based singer and songwriter has crafted a warm and welcoming record which unveils heretofore untapped depths of ingenuity and optimism. Touching upon a range of styles and musical setting – spanning pastoral folk, railroad blues, front porch country, and plangent balladry – “GOSSIP IN THE GRAIN” proves to be LaMontagne’s most creative and emotionally expansive collection to date.
LaMontagne’s 2004 debut, “TROUBLE,” became one of that year’s most acclaimed debuts, spawning an instant classic single in the album’s title track. He returned two years later with the stunning “TILL THE SUN TURNS BLACK,” a deeply personal work haunted by a complex and compelling melancholy. The album proved both another popular and critical success, debuting in the top 30 on the Billboard 200 and further marking LaMontagne as a major American artist.
After spending 18 long months on the road, LaMontagne returned to Maine and decompressed. He listened to little music, choosing to focus his energies on restoring his new house, once owned by the late Norman Mailer. In early 2008, he began plotting out his next record and before winter’s end, was ready to return to work. Where LaMontagne’s previous records had been recorded closer to home, this time he opted to cross the Atlantic in order to work alongside his longtime collaborator, producer Ethan Johns at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Box, Wiltshire.
“Ethan came to me last time,” LaMontagne says. “I was living in Woodstock and he traveled out there so I could be close to home. He recently moved back to England and he lives about 10 minutes from the studio, so it was only fair that I go to him this time.”
LaMontagne’s two previous albums were largely solo affairs, with Johns serving as multi-tasking instrumentalist. “GOSSIP IN THE GRAIN” sees him joined by members of his touring band, bassist Jennifer Condos and guitarist Eric Heywood (Johns largely handles drum duties, as touring drummer Jay Bellerose was on the road with Robert Plant & Alison Krauss at the time of the recording). Along with his band members, LaMontagne is also joined on two tracks – “A Falling Through” and “I Still Care For You” – by singer/songwriter Leona Naess, a friend and artist whose work he has long admired.
“Ethan and I work very well together, one-on-one. I don’t know what it is that’s going on there, but we can sort of read each other’s minds a little bit, so it’s really easy for us to work together alone. It’s uncluttered. But we’ve done that. Touring with Jen and Eric has been amazing. They are both incredible people and musicians. I just love the sound we create as a band. It felt like a natural evolution to record this album together.
The sessions concluded in early spring with about 14 tracks recorded, but upon reflection, LaMontagne decided to cull the collection by half. Left with less than a full album’s worth of material, he reached into his bag of songs and pulled out three more pieces – “Sarah,” “Meg White,” and the autumnal title track – which ultimately went on to define the record’s liberated aesthetic and attitude.
While “Winter Birds” and “Gossip In The Grain” retain the sparse atmosphere of his previous record, the album is through and through a shaggier, more loose-limbed collection. Songs like “Henry Nearly Killed Me” and “Hey Me, Hey Mama” have a rambunctious energy and high-spiritedness that show a hitherto undisclosed side of LaMontagne’s talent. “Meg White,” a rollicking paean to Jack White’s drum-beating older sister, lets slip a mischievous wit that the songwriter has previously been loath to reveal on record.
“Well, she does rock,” LaMontagne points out. “She deserves a song.”
Throughout the record there are recurrent themes of reconnection, of relationships torn down and then reborn, presented with the most sanguine outlook of LaMontagne’s career. While some songs, such as the tender “Sarah,” feel intensely confessional, others appear to reveal truth through carefully drawn characterizations. As ever, LaMontagne is reticent about delving into the emotional source of his material, preferring to let the work speak for itself.
“I just don’t like to talk about that stuff,” he admits. “It seems unnecessary to deconstruct it. It’s like seeing a magician or a juggler – you don’t really want to know how they do it. You just want to enjoy it for what it is."
Touring “TILL THE SUN TURNS BLACK” was a difficult proposition for LaMontagne, forcing him to revisit that album’s dark places on a near-nightly basis. The more relaxed nature of “GOSSIP IN THE GRAIN” – along with a tightly bonded touring family – makes hitting the road something he can now look forward to.
“A lot of things have changed in the past couple of years,” he says. “My whole touring life has stabilized. It wasn’t like that in the beginning, it was brutal. But now I have a really first class team out there. Everybody works well with each other, everybody communicates, we’re all friends. I really look forward to seeing them because I get home, up here in the mountains, and I’m very cut off from everything. I have no social life here – which is my own choosing, I like that – but it’s nice to look forward to touring because all your friends are there.”
Freewheeling, confident, and utterly idiosyncratic, “GOSSIP IN THE GRAIN” confirms Ray LaMontagne as an artist and a craftsman without limits, a songwriter who is able to work his melodic gifts and distinctive lyricism through any of the myriad musical traditions which catches his fancy.
“I feel like I kinda got tagged immediately as some kind of blue-eyed soul,” LaMontagne says, “and that’s really not me. Then, when the second record came out, it was a little disconcerting for some people, because it certainly wasn’t a soul record by any means. “To be honest,” he continues, “I feel like I can do anything. Not necessarily very well, but I just love music. I’m not saying that in an egotistical way, like ‘I can do anything.’ I just like to follow it. Wherever the song leads, I just follow it.”
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