Ray Lamontagne & the Pariah Dogs: “God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise”
I remember, once upon a time, when Ray Lamontagne swore he’d never work with another producer save for Ethan Johns. You can’t blame the guy. Johns is truly gifted behind the controls, and together he and Lamontagne made three very fine albums that were consistent with each other yet also very much their own entities, with their own characters. Johns helped establish the husky-voiced soul singer as both a Tim Buckley and a Van Morrison for a new generation, and the two of them carved out a distinct presence culled form the nocturnal side of American roots music. The three records they made were rich in beauty, alluring in their understatement, vibrant in their balance of humor and heartache. And oh yeah: They sounded great. Lamontagne’s loyalty to Johns has never been blind; until now, it’s always been in his own best interests as an artist.
But things change, you grow up, you move on: God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise is Lamontagne’s first album made without Johns, though to be fair, he’s remained true to the spirit of his loyalty oath, if not the letter; technically he is working with another producer, but it’s only himself. Lamontagne made the album in his Massachusetts home with his new band, the Pariah Dogs, who share the billing with him on the album cover– and if that sounds like a gesture from Lamontagne that he’s trying to move into new, more band-oriented territory, let it be said from the outset that he obviously absorbed everything Johns taught him. God Willin’ is another Lamontgne album that sounds, immediately, like an essential Lamontagne album, a continuation of what came before it but also a subtle cultivation of familiar sounds. It isn’t surprising, but it does have its own character and feel. It sounds great, and not particularly different from the Johns recordings. And while the new band is predictably killer– it includes such studio superstars as Jay Bellerose (drums), Jennifer Condos (bass), Patrick Warren (keys), Eric Heywood (guitar) and Greg Leisz (pedal steel)– they aren’t highlighted quite as much as you might expect. Or hope.
That said, the album starts with a bang– and arguably the best track Lamontagne’s ever cut. “Repo Man” takes his fascination with American roots music in an exciting new direction, forsaking both the mellowness of his folksier work and the shiny, horn-driven propulsion of his Van Morrison-styled numbers in favor of a raw, dirty Meters groove. The full band is present to kick up the dust, with Jay Bellerose taking the lead on a spidery, locomotive rhythm. The guitars sound is simple and inelegant, and the whole track suggests the sweat of summer heat– and then the singer enters in his roughest, dirtiest blues voice, delivering a nasty kiss-off to an unfaithful lover but leaving time for some laughing sexual asides. It’s a purely vulgar, gritty song that drips with sweat and sex and dark humor, and it kicks the door down for what could have been an explosive new recording in Lamontagne’s recording career.
So it’s a little disappointing, at first, when the rest of the record doesn’t pan out that way. Everything else here is moody, sad-sack country, late-night heartache where Bellerose’s drums don’t pound but simply anchor the songs in American soil, and where Leisz’ steel guitar quickly becomes the set’s dominant, mood-setting instrument. Nothing else here even attempts the kind of momentum “Repo Man” delivers, but it’s soulful in a different way. Yes, it’s the kind of midnight regret and lovelorn country-folk Lamontagne’s been making for four records now, but his craft and his confidence continue to expand, and God Willin’ delivers its own particular character that fits well with its rustic, folksy title: The scales are tipped more than ever toward country-fried weepies, honky-tonky tearjerkers and barroom bawlers. This is Lamontagne at his twangiest, and, thus far, his grittiest.
It’s all very sad, very soulful, very quiet: He still sings in a hush, and the band is more about maintaining ambiance than burning down the barn. (Admittedly, they leave nothing but ashes on that opening cut.) Lamontagne essentially takes a solo turn on the sad lullaby “Are We Really Through”– the waste of a perfectly great band, perhaps, but the music on this ten-song set is wall-to-wall beautiful and moving. Lamontagne is nothing if not deep here, as he chooses to burrow inward instead of expanding his sound outward. The result is a record that feels lived-in, alive, and way older than it actually is: “New York City’s Killing Me” is a weary tearjerker that could have been a standard, “Beg Steal or Borrow” is a lively and spirited mid-tempo number, and “Old Before Your Time” is a terrifically Gram Parsons-esque, banjo-driven country number. This is his best-yet set of lyrics– worldly, wise, tough-talking but ultimately very sensitive.
It is, in short, a Ray Lamontagne album– a singer/songwriter album that’s in touch with its roots and deep with its own character. It’s personal music that speaks in a universal vocabulary. It’s a charming collaboration with a new group of cohorts– let’s hope they stick around, and bring some additional heat next time around– but it’s also, in a sense, the first album Lamontagne’s made himself. Calling it his best may be a slight stretch, but it is, if nothing else, his purest.