Over the course of his first three albums, Ray LaMontagne conveyed a natural talent for making his acoustic arrangements and intimate, often velvety-gruff vocals sound as if they’d been captured right in his living room.
There’s long been a delicate poignancy to LaMontagne’s delivery that forces equal parts close listening and chair-rocking ease of feeling. For his fourth album God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise, LaMontagne has done one better by bringing the studio to his Massachusetts living room to create a loose, live-sounding record alongside his newly named band, The Pariah Dogs.
God Willin’ is also LaMontagne’s first time trying his hand at producing, and he’s turned in a collection of understated gems. It’s obvious that he’s paid close attention to what Ethan Johns did behind the boards on his first outings. This album takes Trouble’s loose, big-echoed soul and marries it to the folk leanings of the subdued Till The Sun Turns Black. LaMontagne certainly keeps his voice at the forefront – just where it should be, really – but he also gives his Pariah Dogs ample opportunities to stand out.
The group spent two weeks recording at LaMontagne’s home, and perhaps the close quarters are to thank for the hard-earned touring-band cohesion that permeates the album. It’s easy to imagine them sitting around in the living room – or, perhaps more fittingly, on the front porch – nodding to each other to signal solos and grinning at unexpected turns (see the superb For The Summer). Various Pariah Dogs have toured with Beck, Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams and Joe Cocker; they are more than a convenient collection of hillbillies.
Opener Repo Man hits harder than any of LaMontagne’s previous work and, indeed, harder than anything else on the album. It builds from a frantically funky acoustic groove to incorporate a swampy electric guitar and impossibly soulful organ. Were it not for LaMontagne’s trademark voice, this could well be a lost Blues Traveler track. New York City’s Killing Me feels like a bit more familiar terrain for LaMontagne with its slowly meandering acoustic picking and winsome balladry. “Just got to get me somewhere,” he sings, “Somewhere that I can feel free,” before Greg Leisz brings in an expertly braying slide guitar line.
The album is at its best when it embodies the essential qualities of vintage LaMontagne fleshed out for full-band collaboration. “You’ve been howling at the moon like a slack-jawed fool,” LaMontagne sings on Beg Steal Or Borrow, which thumps along like a sundown jug of moonshine after a hard day’s thieving. “Well, look at them now,” LaMontagne croons, “Already pulling the plow. So quick to take to grain like some old mule.”
The enchantingly melancholic Like Rock & Roll And Radio finds LaMontagne asking over fingerpicking and harmonica: “Are we strangers now, like rock ‘n’ roll and the radio?” On the closer, Devil In The Jukebox, the band stomps and sways in barn-burning fashion as LaMontagne invokes a “big yellow moon rising up over them old hills.”
God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise is a departure for Ray LaMontagne – it’s always risky for a solo artist to suddenly tack on a band name four albums in – but the collaborative effect that The Pariah Dogs have achieved is something rarely seen in the work of singer-songwriters today. LaMontagne has surrounded himself with the best possible company, and long-time fans should find that the payoff is something to marvel at.