Reviews: Ray LaMontagne’s “God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise”

God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise”, Ray LaMontagne’s fourth studio album, is clearly something different; it is billed as the first album from Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs, a studio super group consisting of drummer Jay Bellerose, bassist Jennifer Condos, guitarist Eric Haywood, keyboardist Patrick Warren, and pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz (whom Wilco fans should be fond of and familiar with). With this addition, the dusty-voiced songwriter has created a new and distinct sound. Where in previous albums the instrumentation served only as a backdrop to LaMontagne’s commanding vocals, here the Pariah Dogs’ talent is unmistakable and irrepressible, complementing that of their lead man throughout. The result is an album that is both balanced and invigorating, and the most consistently satisfying effort from LaMontagne since his debut “Trouble”.

The Pariah Dogs announce their presence on the opening track, “Repo Man”, a scratchy blend of blues, funk, and dark country rock. LaMontagne still manages to steal the show with his growling vocals, but it is the plaintive guitar and combative bass line that give his indignant lyrics true substance. It is the beginning to an album that effuses confidence, a satisfying message given that “God Willin’” is also the first self-produced album from the notoriously shy LaMontagne.

The first half of the ten song album is full of standouts, including three ballads: “New York City’s Killing Me”, “Are We Really Through”, and the album’s title track. LaMontagne fans will be familiar with lyrics appealing to lost loves and yearning for backwoods seclusion, but it is the color and substance behind them that separate such songs from those of older albums. Even the purposefully empty “Are We Really Through”, performed almost exclusively by LaMontagne and shaped by noticeable imperfections in acoustic picking, is a distinct departure from the rest of the album.

God Willin’s” single “Beg Steal or Borrow” is a catchy, chugging piece of country rock with enough momentum to carry the album through its somewhat weaker second half. “This Love is Over” is unique as a jazz piece with enough soul to make Bill Withers proud, and the banjo driven “Old Before Your Time” combines a melancholic message with a warm, folky delivery. Neither, however, is able to completely draw attention away from what is clearly the album’s empty patch. Placed back to back, “For the Summer” and “Like Rock & Roll & Radio” are redolent of thinner songs from LaMontagne’s past.

LaMontagne puts his new bandmates to work in the album’s closing number—a smoky, stomping piece of Americana entitled “Devil’s in the Jukebox”. The choice to end with such an edge is a measured one, and reflects LaMontagne’s new direction and new lineup. Pieced together, “God WIllin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise” is a success, managing to blend the raw and gritty texture of “Trouble” with the lighter, more fluid feel that shapes much of “Gossip in the Grain” and “Till the Sun Turns Black”. He is that rare artist who seems able to evolve with each new album without betraying his initial, inherent style. It is a special talent, and one that should have listeners loyally waiting for whatever evolution comes next.

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