The most told story surrounding Ray LaMontagne seems to be that while working for 70 hours a week at some shoe factory in Maine, he heard Stephens Stills’ “Treetop Flyer” one early morning and decided to become a songwriter. He’s released three albums since as a solo entity and one has to think an interesting origin hooked listeners before the first note. But now, record No. 4 sees LaMontagne start a new story by bringing in a backing band, The Pariah Dogs. More than just a cool name and extra people to bang/strum on various instruments, the record sees LaMontagne create a gorgeous musical soundscape with confidence and input from his newfound confidants and musical journeymen, who gave LaMontagne the strength to let his unique skills shape and mold the album.
It’s clear that LaMontagne, the private person he is reported to be, isn’t entirely comfortable working with a group and is still in a transitional phase. That’s obvious in the album’s first four tracks, a helping of assorted offerings that offer the listener little in the way of consistency, instead geared more toward a sampling of some great influences. Whether it’s “Repo Man” (a gritty, blues explosion that sounds like an unplugged Allman Brothers spurning the woman who did them wrong) or the organic Pink Floyd waltz “God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise”, it’s hard to get anything definitive in terms of a personalized sound. Pleasurable tracks as they are, the only real deep, exciting substance comes in the form of LaMontagne’s voice. Musically, guitars, mandolin, and some sparse piano hold the album hostage, keeping a rather morose stranglehold on each track. While it lacks innovation, it’s basic enough to keep the focus on the gritty, visceral, right from the depths of the darkest pain in the lowest part of his gut singing that LaMontagne spins rather readily. It’s only when LaMontagne applies that magical throat of his to something close to his jaded little heart does the album come alive.
Unlike other albums with a focus on storytelling, this album clearly has two narratives. Tracks five through seven seem to be all about the end of a love affair, something long and sordid that doesn’t explode, but crumbles in the confused hands of LaMontagne. He begins questioning everything in “Are We Really Through”, sung with a base-less, almost genderless voice of sheer universal pain, as if this pain speaks for the entirety of a dead relationship. “This Love Is Over” is a weaker chain in the story, but grooves with a folklorico/world music-esque guitar part, building a sexy vibe to contrast the real depression. And while, in theory, it’s even less concrete and a further breakdown in a definitive story, “Old Before Your Time” marks the height of LaMontagne’s mastery at instilling his emotional sensibilities right into your ear canal as he squirms in self-pity. And while tracks eight and nine (“For The Summer” and “Like Rock & Roll and Radio”) are a shorter story, devoid of the immediate pain of the previous tale, they work best due to their dedication to big, pop-friendly songwriting techniques, for being unbelievably succinct, and for their portrayal of time and memories after the death of love from various points in a man’s life, burning right into your heart that no length of time ever makes it all better, even if you think it does.
It’s safe to say that LaMontagne has found some friends to propel him forward. Interestingly enough, it’s not their added talent that shines and opens the door a bigger career and even more evocative music from LaMontagne. Like some cliche from Wizard Of Oz, he had it in him the whole time. Thanks to the Dogs, though, he’s found that courage and has an album that tears its way into your head and heart. It’s lacking in some parts, but his takeover, his bequeathing of pain and torment, is almost impossible to pass up.