CD Review of Gossip in the Grain by Ray LaMontagne
Recommended if you like
Sam Cooke, Van Morrison, Gomez
Label
RCA
Ray LaMontagne:
Gossip in the Grain

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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I
n the dark days of 2004, when spiraling CD sales were crippling the record industry and legal downloading was still in its relative infancy, Ray LaMontagne made for the kind of heartwarming story that true believers in the major-label system desperately needed. Sounding like the ghost of Sam Cooke singing an album of Van Morrison covers, LaMontagne came pre-packed with the kind of mythology that used to go hand-in-hand with rock & roll stardom: Bearded, dirt-poor, moved to create music when he heard Stephen Stills’ “Tree Top Flyer” on the radio during his shift in a Maine shoe factory – and prone to breaking down crying while singing his nakedly emotional songs in concert.

Trouble, LaMontagne’s debut, was an NPR record if there ever was one, but it was a breath of fresh air too powerful to resist. Though it wasn’t a major seller, it appealed to mothers-in-law and college kids alike, and for a few months, it seemed like RCA had lucked into the sort of crossover rock singer that wasn’t supposed to exist anymore.

Then, of course, came album number two. LaMontagne’s sophomore release, 2006’s Till the Sun Turns Black, scraped the Top 30 of Billboard’s Top Albums chart, but it didn’t register anywhere near the impact that its predecessor enjoyed; instead of building a slow, wide buzz, it peaked early and disappeared fast. Though still beloved by the mp3-blog faithful, LaMontagne seemed to lose some of that crossover momentum – probably thanks, at least in part, to the follow-up’s darker tone, which turned off anyone looking for more of the bucolic sounds of the debut.

It may not restore him to It Dude status, but LaMontagne’s third effort, Gossip in the Grain, will definitely please fans of his debut – it isn’t a sequel to Trouble, but it does clearly use that album’s aesthetic as a sonic template. Like Trouble, Gossip in the Grain sounds – in the best sense – like an early ‘70s Van Morrison record, loaded with warm acoustic guitars, strings, and the occasional touches of brass, with LaMontagne’s pained soul croon hovering like smoke over everything. It’s the kind of record that sounds like fall in New England, even if you’ve never been there; one listen to the up-tempo, horn-laced opening track “You Are the Best Thing,” and you’re liable to pick up your phone in search of an apple orchard or a hayride.

Ray Lamontagne

All of the above, however, is exactly what some purists have quibbled with: LaMontagne sounds great, sure, but even conceding that there’s nothing new under the sun, his albums are awfully familiar; they might sound fresh to listeners who’ve yet to discover Moondance or classic soul records, but to more experienced ears, they’re just calorie-free exercises in nostalgia.

That’s just crankiness, though. He may not have scaled the heights of the artists his music so strongly evokes, but LaMontagne is a fine songwriter – and one who, as Gossip makes clear, is still growing into his talent. His reach exceeded his grasp on Till the Sun Turns Black, but these 10 tracks find LaMontagne squarely in his folk-soul wheelhouse, moving comfortably between midtempo burners and hushed, urgent ballads. (On the sixth track, “Meg White,” he even flashes a sense of humor.) It won’t change your life, and it doesn’t deserve a spot next to the true classics of the genre, but Gossip in the Grain is one of the most pleasurable listens that classic rock fans are going to find this fall, and it offers further proof that Ray LaMontagne is a developing artist with a voice worth hearing – and if it’s a voice that it feels like we’ve heard before, so much the better.

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