Gossip in the Grain
First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2008, Volume 15, #10
Written by John Metzger
Thu October 16, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
The arc of Ray LaMontagne’s career is beginning to look suspiciously like that of any label-made artist. Trouble, his debut, may have been an uneven affair, but its better tracks along with the compelling story of how he entered the music business were leveraged effectively enough to give him a leg up on his competition. Before the dewy-eyed adoration of his fans could fade, LaMontagne collaborated with Ethan Johns on his sophomore set Till the Sun Turns Black. The outing deftly expanded LaMontagne’s palette while remaining true to his roots, and as a result, it cemented the connection he has to his base. Not surprisingly, then, Gossip in the Grain, his latest endeavor, was designed specifically to maximize his appeal to the mainstream.
Like most artists, LaMontagne began his career by aggregating styles rather than forging a bold new path. On Till the Sun Turns Black, he appeared, however, as if he was on the verge of finding his own voice. With Gossip in the Grain, though, he unfortunately has taken a step backward. Throughout the endeavor, LaMontagne seems, more often than not, to be lost in an ethereal haze, unable to put any real distance between himself and his influences. Once again, he borrows from Van Morrison (Sarah) and Stephen Stills (Winter Birds), while Damien Rice’s output serves as the impetus for the title track.
Nevertheless, the most glaring issue of all that plagues Gossip in the Grain is, perhaps, the way in which LaMontagne seems to have been repositioned to challenge John Mayer’s reign over the market. Not only have LaMontagne’s vocals become increasingly breathy, but the syrupy string arrangement that envelopes the bland Let It Be Me also blatantly steals a page straight from Mayer’s book. Oddly enough, while Mayer has been trying desperately to escape from formulaic expectations, LaMontagne appears to be comfortably settling into them.
Gossip in the Grain’s saving grace is LaMontagne himself. He revels in the punchy, horn-drenched soul of You Are the Best Thing, salvaging it from its underwhelming lyrics. Elsewhere, the rustic charm of Hey Me, Hey Mama oscillates playfully between Loudon Wainwright III and The Beatles before a Dixieland band joins the fray, while the driving groove of Henry Nearly Killed Me (It’s a Shame) succeeds in swerving from Bob Dylan to Simon & Garfunkel and from John Mayall to The Guess Who. Much like the rest of Gossip in the Grain, these songs don’t break any new ground, but at least, for a moment, LaMontagne sounds more engaged. This makes all the difference in the world.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box