Review: Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs’ ‘God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise’

08.16.10 7 years ago 2 Comments

“God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise,” Ray LaMontagne’s fourth album, is the first to utilize a billed backing band, The Pariah Dogs. It’s also the first album the Northeast native has produced on his own.

Any singer-songwriter would fall over themselves to snare the talent that 37-year-old LaMontagne’s enlisted — drummer Jay Bellerose (Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, Joe Henry), bassist Jennifer Condos (Bruce Springsteen, Ryan Adams), keyboardist Patrick Warren (Fiona Apple, Red Hot Chili Peppers), guitarist Eric Heywood (Son Volt, The Pretenders) and pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz (Wilco, Beck). It’s a session supergroup of sorts, with the predictable but welcome husky hum of a master singer’s voice.

The result is what a live record should sound like, with the slaps of tambourine against the flesh of a palm, an accidental double bounce of a soft kick drum head, a wisp of accordion pulsing through the pocket. It’s  not a perfect record; it’s a band record.

And it’s good timing, too. “God Willing” dislodges LaMontagne from the single-note path that he was starting to tread, as good as that note may be. Like contemporaries Sam Beam of Iron & Wine and his newer recordings or Ryan Adams when he added the Cardinals, the hive-mind all serving the purpose of that voice gives LaMontagne some new directions.

The first half of the album is a showcase of just that, from the nah-uh blues-funk resilience of opener “Repo Man,” to the cinematic exhalations of the title track. Insta-classic “Beg Steal or Borrow” is a country-hued song so natural, one needs only a pair of listens to know the words and melody by heart.

While they’re pulling out the stops for new sounds, “This Love Is Over” gets a break-up make-up with a hint of bossa nova chattering behind pedal steel — it’s a little too toothlessly adult contempo, as is the “tired” “For the Summer.”
LaMontagne’s lyrical material hasn’t changed much, though the tone is a bit darker than previous “Gossip in the Grain.” The folksy utterances of “tying ribbons in her hair” (“Like Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio”) and throwing “tomatoes on the griddle to fry” (in 16-bar stomper “Devil’s in the Jukebox) is met with autobiographical nasty-colored memories, loneliness for a woman and disdain for the road (see: “New York City’s Killing Me”). It’d all be too precious if it weren’t so authentic, a currency with with LaMontagne deals with ease.
As this famously shy man becomes even more brave in his loose-fitting suits, his band — and, heck, that beard — has become less things to hide behind and more empowering to his style. “God Willin'” is that next leap forward, even with missteps, even with some trepidation. It’s full of songs tough to dispel once heard, from an artist whose voice reveals itself, time and again, to do just the same.

Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs’ “God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise” will be released tomorrow (Aug. 17).

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