Ray, Jesse and Me

Ray LaMontagne

Stored deep in memory with few referents as to time or place is an image of a pocket watch-toting rabbit repeating “I’m late, I’m late for a very important date.”  The older I get, the more I sympathize with the bunny. None of which has anything to do with today’s subject which really is the most recent release from the New Hampshire gentleman pictured nearby. What, then, does the one have to do with the other? The record was released last August so, like the tardy hare, I’m 8 months behind.

AHC, though, is not hitched to some arbitrary standard of the instant so I’ll take the risk and attempt an old-fashioned album review. Unlike a real critic, though, I don’t get all the attendant info that comes in the publicity pack although at this point much of the background is probably old news.

So we’ll start with the condensed version: Ray Lamontagne is a singer-songwriter who hails from the northern reaches of New England. God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise, is a self-produced album credited to Mr. L and a band called the Pariah Dogs, an evidently seasoned lot. Rumor has it that the record company rejected the record at first, reluctantly released it and had a granola-rock  hit on their hands.

If you’re old enough you’ve heard this all before. It’s straight out of the 1970s ‘recording artist’ playbook. But there’s a lot about this record that’s a throwback to the 70s. (And I’ll continue to say record because to me that’s what it is, format be damned.) The instrumentation–all real instruments–is straight out of Neil Young’s Harvest right down to the pedal steel, banjo and Dobro. The drums are unobtrusive enough to go unnoticed while the bass moves along like the second coming of Tim Drummond.

Floating above it all is Lamontagne’s voice, a tenor with a particular airiness to it anchored by an intermittent hitch, often expressed at the end of a line, that conveys longing and heartache and an “I’ve seen so much'” feel that just seems older than his years (Lamontagne was born in 1973). So in For the Summer when he sings “I’m tired, I am tired” it feels weary and perfectly sets up the Tim Buckleyesque soar to the chorus “Can I come home/for the summer?”

Right after that, of course, you get the Dobro solo that evokes so many Neil Young songs followed by a song that starts with a strummed acoustic guitar and harmonica. At times, the effect risks stepping beyond homage although the songs are strong enough to stay well away from outright mimicry.

As a way to grab an audience working with familiar forms is a valid approach. In fact, what first caught my ear was “Beg, Borrow or Steal” which sounded like a lost Jesse Winchester song and made me wonder if I’d missed something a few decades back. (Look again at the photo of Lamontagne above and decide for yourself if the 70s thing is all-encompassing–and also if Winchester is a visual role model.)

The tracks already mentioned are among the stronger ones, as is Repo Man, a number that serves notice that The Allman Brothers Band aren’t the only ones who can find funk in an all acoustic line-up. Not everything works for me. The 6-minute plus Like Rock & Roll and Radio (the strummed number mentioned above) is a reminder why sensitive guys with guitars should not be allowed to croon the phrase rock & roll. But on balance the record, all mid-1970s, 44 minutes of it, holds together better than most new records. It seems to sidestep the good tracks up front, weaker ones toward the bottom approach of so many recent efforts.

I don’t want to sound like some whining, middle-aged parental type. Or worse, Tom Berenger , in The Big Chill when he says he only allows ’60s music in the house. At times it does seem like there’s nothing new happening musically–or at least nothing new that appeals to me. So the fact that an album can grab me–even if it’s by tricking me into thinking what’s old is new again–makes me feel a little bit better about the state of music.

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