God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise
Once upon a time, a guy named Ray LaMontagne heard a Stephen Stills song called "Treetop Flyer" and gave up his job at a shoe factory in Maine to become a musician. If you've ever listened to the tune, it's plain to see God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise is LaMontagne's most successful effort in creating his own version of Stills' sprawling, classic Laurel Canyon jams.
Because he's been blessed with a beautiful voice (he's often compared to Van Morrison), it's easy to dismiss LaMontagne as just another entry in the Howie Day/John Mayer school of singer-songwriting, on the backs of singles like "Trouble" and "You Are the Best Thing." Poppy, catchy radio gems they were — but not representative of his moodier, thoughtful arrangements.
On this, his fourth album, LaMontagne decided to go it alone, jettisoning his former producer, Ethan Johns. With his "band," the Pariah Dogs (he named 'em), he's succeeded in making music that focuses on instrumental craft over catchiness.
The songs are rambling, but because of the loose arrangements and the country-and-western touches, they're like pastures or open roads. On "Beg Steal or Borrow," the slide guitar and Eagles-esque riffs sound ready-made for a movie soundtrack, a track that could play over the credits while Ray speeds away on a motorcycle.
On "This Love is Over," LaMontagne uses the space he's created, that quiet atmosphere, to write a Babyface-influenced R&B-flavored jam. Putting his voice at the forefront, paired with acoustic guitar, he uses country guitars in place of (and along with) strings. It's brave, and it works. It should make Thicke or John Legend beat the keys in frustration. The album's title track builds from a simple strummer to an epic, swooning chorus in the style of Band of Horses or Explosions in the Sky.
But in the need to remake himself, LaMontagne jettisons the parts of him that were joyful and funny — the hopeless romantic wailing along with the chorus girls in "You Are the Best Thing," or the playful flirt issuing a come-on in "Meg White." "New York City's Killing Me" is, to be blunt, a Ryan Adams-copycat cop-out. Do we really need another song that whines about how oppressive concrete can be and how big-city people don't look you in the eye? Isn't that what country music is for? Instrumentally, LaMontagne sounds more like Deer Tick than ever. But Deer Tick's lyrics hint at some inner darkness that LaMontagne now seems to back away from. It boggles the mind that the author of lines like: "Cocaine flame in my bloodstream / Sold my coat when I hit Spokane," is now writing shlock about the sun coming out from behind the clouds (great metaphor!). Left in the wake of younger, braver writers like Deer Tick or Crazy Heart's Academy Award-winning songwriter Ryan Bingham, LaMontagne isn't adding much to the canon that hasn't been done before. Perhaps, in the rush to produce on his own, to run the show, Ray LaMontagne forgot what — and who — he was singing for. But he's still worth seeing, 8/26 at Meadowbrook.
Worth a listen: "Beg Steal or Borrow"