Being the shy person he reportedly is, it’s a surprise that Ray LaMontagne would kick off his new album, Gossip in the Grain, with a brash Motown-esque anthem. He follows the song with the perfectly executed, not-quite-R&B, not-quite-soft-rock ballad “Let It Be Me.” It’s the sort of song you expect from Whitney Houston, not a former shoe-factory worker from Maine. His voice shows strain sometimes, but as far as beta males go, he’s pretty soulful. “Sarah” channels some strange intersection between a less baroque Cat Stevens and Bob Dylan; “Winter Birds” and the album’s title track imitate Stevens’s over-pronounced consonants and whimsical song topics, populating his lyrics with chattering sparrows and a “spartan mule,” among other things. LaMontagne’s other influences (including blues, Dixieland and even some Morricone) demonstrate a musical intelligence that draws from wider tastes than Sam Beam, but is not quite as heady as Sufjan Stevens. It takes some cojones to draw from this vast of a musical palette, and it takes skill to make it work; the album goes through drastic shifts but it is not chaotic. While it’s difficult to find a connection between the songs, listening to LaMontagne pay homage to his influences is like watching a gymnast perfectly stick a landing again and again. He demonstrates more musical creativity than most in our current swath of singer-songwriters all frothing at the mouth for their own three minutes of Grey’s Anatomy soundtrack fame, and while it’s true that LaMontagne’s music has backed this show, Gossip in the Grain clearly shows he can do more than the typical singer-songwriter navel gazing.
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