Ray Lamontagne Hits His Stride With The Pariah Dogs
An amazing backing band can work wonders for a good songwriter. Ryan Adams with The Cardinals. Tom Petty with The Heartbreakers. Bob Dylan with The Band. Bruce Springsteen with the E Street Band. Justin Timberlake with *Nsync; well, maybe not as much. Every pairing helped elevate its leader’s storytelling to another level by subtracting the instrumental onus; metaphorically speaking, their support planted trees in the proverbial forest, allowing the leading man to focus on the bigger picture.
Since the release of Trouble in 2004, Ray Lamontagne has done very little wrong. He has released three strong albums, toured the world and enjoyed regular exposure on movie and television soundtracks. All the while, he has evaded the spotlight, avoided overwhelming media coverage and worked entirely within the realms of a creative vision he cultivated with producer Ethan Johns. But with 2008′s Gossip in the Grain, one couldn’t help but feel that Lamontagne was starting to stall; there were plenty of fresh ideas at play, but none that sounded fully explored or structured. In a bold move, he chose to self-produce his fourth effort, God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise (which will be released August 17 on RCA Records), writing with the help of his newly formed band, The Pariah Dogs. To borrow a few of Ray’s own words in favour of his excellent new group, “you are the best thing that ever happened to me.”
The record marks Lamontagne’s first to sound and feel like a completely collaborative effort. The musicianship is robust; adding Greg Leisz on pedal-steel is monstrous — exhibited best by the title track’s theme and ‘New York City’s Killing Me’ — while Jay Bellarose’s percussion is a subtle highlight. In fact, all the musicians do an admirable job of giving Ray his spotlight without diminishing any impression that these songs would be as excellent without their involvement. In several cases, the group push Lamontagne beyond his comfort zone, exploring jazzy undertones on ‘This Love Is Over’, expanding his soul repertoire with ‘Repo Man’ and letting loose on the Steve Earle folk-rocker, ‘Devil in the Juke Box’. Like T-Bone Burnett before him — see Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand – Lamontagne has assembled a group of well-rounded professionals who play with incredible taste and understand the virtue of a less is more production value.
With lush instrumentation in the more than capable hands of the Pariah Dogs, Lamontagne finally has room to become the top-notch songwriter his past releases suggested he could be. While his lyrical subjects remain largely intact — being loneliness, love/loss and the ongoing quest of the Prometheus everyman — each song on God Willin’ sounds fully realized; there are no dead-ends, inconclusive climaxes or confusingly vague lyrics, elements that plagued otherwise promising selections on Till the Sun Turns Black and Gossip in the Grain. The bridge sections of ‘Like Rock N’ Roll Radio’, the gorgeous ‘Old Before Your Time’ and the single, ‘Beg, Steal or Borrow’, illustrate this point; what would have been unsatisfied endings on earlier recordings are now melodic turnarounds that yield emotional depth to already strong and stylistic alternative-country.
One might go so far as to suggest that Lamontagne has comfortably returned to the straight-forward storytelling days of unreleased demos like Acre of Land and One Lonesome Saddle, a time when he had little qualms with admitting a what-would-Townes-do influence. With God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise, there is no lingering disconnect between the lyrics and the mood his band creates. It is lean, mean, incredibly well crafted and direct. The 37-year old says exactly what needs saying, and for the first time in his professional career, doesn’t let his words get in the way. In short, he sounds like he is finally making the music he has always wanted to make.