Last June, I saw Ray LaMontagne sit in with Levon Helm from The Band at Mountain Jam, and was blown away by how well LaMontagne’s tortured vocals suited two of The Band’s classics, “Across The Great Divide” and “Tears Of Rage.” Wearing a cowboy hat, bearded and dressed in brown, LaMontagne would have fit right in on the cover of The Band’s classic self-titled album, reverently referred to as “The Brown Album.” Ray LaMontagne has drawn comparisons to The Band before because of his Richard Manuel-like soulful vocals, but his music has always been softer and more depressing than the freewheelin’ rock and roll of The Band. However that is beginning to change on LaMontagne’s rootsy new album God Willin’ And The Creek Don’t Rise, which has The Band’s influence all over it and is undoubtedly the strongest studio effort of his career.
A funky acoustic guitar riff, snappy drums and wailing blues guitar greet the listener at the beginning of this album, and after a minute of listening to the first track “Repo Man” I had to check iTunes to make sure I was listening to Ray LaMontagne and not The Black Crowes or Gov’t Mule. The band jams for a minute and a half before Ray’s trademark vocals come in, a risky way to open the album for a man whose voice has always been the centerpiece of his songs. “Repo Man” is a gritty cousin of The Band’s “King Harvest (Has Surely Come);” funky rock and roll like LaMontagne has never sung it before. Ray’s tight backing band, The Pariah Dogs, compliments his soul-wrenching howls perfectly, and “Repo Man” gives them plenty of space to shine.
The album begins to settle down a bit after “Repo Man,” which is followed by the slow lament of New York City, appropriately titled “New York City’s Killing Me.” The anti-city song jives well with the general theme of the album, which celebrates nature and the countryside. Early hits like “Trouble” and “Shelter” pigeon-holed LaMontagne as a love-stricken, sensitive singer/songwriter, but he is dispelling that label with the new album. On God Willin’ And The Creek Don’t Rise, he spends more time lamenting the disappearances of rock and roll, jukeboxes, and nature than his troubles with women.
Of course for those who crave their Ray’s love gone wrong songs, they are not completely absent from the new album, and “Are We Really Through” and “This Love Is Over” should satisfy those looking for a breakup song. But most of the new songs hearken back to the weird, old America of The Band, and romanticize an earlier time when life was a little simpler and less confusing. God Willin’ And The Creek Don’t Rise is LaMontagne’s tour through Americana, complete with soaring pedal steel guitar runs, slithery dobro, earthy, Levon Helm-like drumming and lyrics full of gorgeous, natural imagery. The songs on God Willin’ And The Creek Don’t Rise are comfortable, bluegrass and country tinged ballads that sound familiar and classic on first listen yet are unmistakably Ray LaMontagne.