If you aren’t familiar with Ray LaMontagne you might be confused as to what type of singer he actually is. From his latest album God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise (unrelated to the new Spike Lee series) you might guess he was a blues rocker, soft rock R&B singer, or twangy folk musician. The country feel to LaMontagne’s fourth album is a bit of a new direction. While folk often comes to mind when listening to his previous work, you’re more likely to hear a piano or horn section backing up his guitar rather than a banjo.
It’s tricky to find the right accompaniment to compliment and accentuate LaMontagne’s vocal talent without making music that sounds like it would fit in the lobby of a Holiday Inn. LaMontagne’s music has, at times, accomplished both. On the album’s opening track, “Repo Man,” his backing band The Pariah Dogs are able to create a loud and rich sound with bluesy electric guitar and harmonica riffs; their music allows LaMontagne’s scratchy and raw voice to soar.
In the middle of the album, however, the track “This Love Is Over” sounds like it belongs on a 90s soft rock compilation that you see TV commercials advertised late at night. With ever-so-light drums, gentle acoustic guitar and piano, slide guitar, and of course, a backing string section, all the instrumentation sounds cheesy and unnecessary. It’s one song that LaMontagne’s superb voice just cannot save.
Throughout God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise, LaMontagne sings about life’s turning points. What I found the most interesting were his discussions of the trying moments of ones young life (dare I say transition period), when a person is still defining oneself and deciding if they’ll conform to life and society’s expectations. Aside from the resonance I felt concerning my own life as a twenty-something post-college runabout, his lyrics are fascinating considering his own unique background.
LaMontagne grew up in poverty and had trouble escaping it; he made his living working in a shoe factory. Early one morning before work he heard the song “Treetop Flyer” by Stephen Stills on the radio and decided that music would become his new path. On the songs “Beg Steal or Borrow” and “Old Before Your Time,” he clearly revisits that pivotal period of his life. From “Beg Steal or Borrow:”
Are you gonna step into line like your daddy done, punching the time and climbing life’s long ladders. You’ve been howling at the moon like a slack-jawed fool, and breaking every rule that they can throw on. But one of these days it’s gonna be right soon, you’ll find your legs and go, and stay gone.
Overall, though, God Willin’ has the feel of a contemporary Paul McCartney album; there’s some catchy tunes, some interesting stories, but nothing blows you away and no new sound is explored. On his previous albums, LaMontagne always had at least one song – either a foot-stomping soulful tune (“Three More Days”) or haunting folk ballad (“Jolene”) – that you couldn’t help but play again and again. And although I feel that the country and blues style is fitting for LaMontagne, his latest album is missing that one song that demands your attention.