Album Review: Ray LaMontagne, “Gossip In The Grain” (2008)

I can’t speak for all women in the world, but I personally grow weak at the sound of a man with a raspy singing voice.  I’m not sure what it is, but there’s something so sexy about raspy, gravelly singing; something entirely primitive calls me to this, I’m sure, but I can’t deny its appeal, nonetheless.

The first few times I heard Ray LaMontagne’s voice, I felt that familiar fluttery feeling in my chest, and I just knew that I had to purchase one of his albums.  Singer-songwriter, LaMontagne has released three studio albums, but I decided to purchase his most recent effort, Gossip In The Grain.

Gossip In The Grain
is a superb collection of romantic ballads and a few fast paced songs, which are mostly all just used as an instrument for LaMontagne’s beautifully distinctive voice.
 
The disc starts off with the upbeat lead single, You Are The Best Thing.  Sounding like something from the Motown era, the track is perfect for LaMontagne’s brand of blue-eyed soul.  As I mentioned in the opening, LaMontagne’s got an incredibly raspy voice which is so wonderful to listen to.  He’s got incredibly powerful vocals, and he handles the song like a pro.  Musically, the song is composed of loud trumpets and plenty of other brass instruments, creating an exciting feel for the rest of the album.

One of my favorites follows with Let It Be Me.  The ballad is simplistically composed of guitar and drums, and LaMontagne’s lovely voice, leaving more focus on the sweet and sentimental lyrics (“There may come a time, you just can’t seem to find your place/For every door you walk on to, seems like they get slammed in your face/That’s when you need someone, someone that you can call/And when all your faith is gone/Feels like you can’t go on/Let it be me”).   The track calls to mind some of the soul music greats- particularly Otis Redding- and it’s the combination of the meaning and LaMontagne’s heartfelt delivery that make the song such a standout.

Next up is yet ANOTHER song about someone named Sarah!  Seriously, why is this name so special?  That’s it- after this review I’m heading down to City Hall and getting a name change form!  Anyway, this song is just as beautiful as both Death Cab For Cutie’s and Declan O’Rourke’s similarly titled songs.  This time, a lush melody with piano and strings are wrapped around the beautiful lyrics (“There ain’t a thing I can say that will ever repair/And you, who had so much advice, and yet couldn’t share/Maybe someday/We will look back at this and we’ll smile, but right now I can’t bear”), and LaMontagne’s delivery is softer, and almost haunting, as he sings this pretty ballad.

The drumming in I Still Care For You gives the song a more upbeat tune, which is welcomed at this point of the album, as the past few tracks have been slow-paced ballads.  This song is as wonderful as the others, however.  LaMontagne’s vocals are somewhat hushed again, giving the song a bittersweet, romantic feeling, especially paired with the lyrics (“Hear me out/You wanted me to be/Less your lover than a mirror /Can’t you see/What you mean to me?/(Even promises may bleed)/I still care for you “).  LaMontagne’s work on the acoustic guitar should also be noted- his picking and strumming are timed perfectly with the melody of the song, standing out nicely along the rest of the music and vocals.

Ray Lamontagne5

Depending on the day and on my mood, I may say that Winter Birds is my favorite song on the album.  The song presents itself as very quiet and unassuming; in fact, on the first few listens of the album, you may not notice it at all.  However, once the melody and LaMontagne’s passionate vocals sink in, you’ll find yourself being drawn to this song just as I am.  Acoustic guitar is the only accompaniment to the emotive lyrics (“The days grow short/As the nights grow long/The kettle sings its tortured song /As many petelled kiss I place upon her brow/Oh, my lady, Lady I am loving you now”), calling to mind Fleet Foxes. The sound is absolutely perfect- the tune is just as melancholy as LaMontagne’s delivery and the songwriting.   And I’ll admit that part of the charm of this song is simply hearing LaMontagne sing the line, “Oh, my lady…Lady I am loving you.”  I swear, if I ever meet a man with that voice, who will sing those lyrics to me, I will marry him- no questions asked.

The whole album isn’t just slow-burning melodies, however.   Meg White arrives, and brings the tempo back up.  Yes, he’s talking about that Meg White- the drummer of the White Stripes.  The first time I heard the song I wasn’t really sure what to think of it.  The album has thus far been composed of sweet, emotive ballads, and suddenly, here’s this cheeky ode to Meg White.   However, a few listens later and I was a fan; I’m not sure if LaMontagne is sincere in this song (“Meg White/Baby, you’re the bomb/Old Jack is great/Don’t get me wrong/But this is your song”), but either way, I love the cheekiness implied and the rhythmic drumming, which I’m also assuming is a tip of the hat to Ms. White.   The song is incredibly cute, especially if LaMontagne really does have a crush on Meg White.

Hey Me, Hey Mama is a sort of country/soul hybrid, which I sadly don’t care for.  The song is the first on the album that I truly feel is weak- the banjo and deep south sound isn’t pleasing to my ears and the lyrics are lacking as well (“Hey Me, Hey Mama/Where you been for so long, for so long?/Hey Me, Hey Mama /Where you been, where you been for so long?”).  However, Henry Nearly Killed Me (It’s A Shame) revisits the same sound, but does it in a much better way – taking away the cheesy twang of the song before, and replacing it with an incredibly soulful and fun refrain (“It’s a shame, shame, shame/Baby it’s a cryin’ shame “).  The song reminds me of some of the ones you’d hear on the O, Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack.

Meanwhile, A Falling Through presents itself as another ballad, again highlighted with beautiful and emotional songwriting (“This of life I know is true/It’s all a falling through/And so I reach for you /Why, why did you go, why did you go away? “).  The title track, Gossip In The Grain is a ballad, too, but is a bit different than the other ballads on the album.  Acoustic guitar makes up most of the song, again, but LaMontagne’s vocals are softer and the lyrics are less about heartbreak and more abstract than on the other tracks on the album (“Truth be:/The Beggar that holds his tongue/Dines on none but air alone”).  The best part of the song is hearing LaMontagne’s vocal delivery- he sounds absolutely exquisite throughout the entire track, and you can almost feel the yearning in his voice as he sings.

My version of the album ends with a handful of live tracks.  “She lifts her skirt up to her knees, walks through the garden rows with her bare feet, laughing. I never learned to count my blessings- I choose instead to dwell in my disasters,” begins Empty, a mid-tempo ballad.  The song is a great example of LaMontagne’s overall musicianship- he plays the guitar beautifully and sings along with just as much skill.  Out of the two live tracks, I find myself enjoying Be Here Now far more.  The tune isn’t as straight-laced as some of the other ballads on the album, as several chord changes bring tension into the melody, giving it a more memorable sound overall.  The lyrics also weave along nicely with LaMontagne’s vocals (“Don’t let your mind get weary and confused/Your will be still, don’t try/Don’t let your heart get heavy child/Inside you there’s a strength that lies”), and overall, the track is a delight.

The live tracks aren’t included on the standard edition of the album, and though they are both nice songs, as a whole, they’re pretty unnecessary to the album’s overall strength.  For the most part, Gossip In The Grain is a cohesive album of beautiful ballads, though the pacing is a bit off during the middle of the disc, where it tends to drag.  What you’ll mostly get out of this album is that Ray LaMontagne is an incredibly talented musician, songwriter, and singer, and the disc is a perfect example of that.

Rating: 200px-4.5_stars.svg

Track Listing
1. You Are the Best Thing
2. Let It Be Me
3. Sarah
4. I Still Care For You
5. Winter Birds
6. Meg White
7. Hey Me, Hey Mama
8. Henry Nearly Killed Me (It’s a Shame)
9. A Falling Through
10. Gossip In the Grain
11. Empty (Live)
12. Be Here Now (Live)

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