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With his remarkable, rough-hewn vocals and evocative, finely etched songs, RAY LAMONTAGNE has, in but a few short years, become the rare artist for whom the world waits to see what each new work will reveal. Now, on his much-anticipated third album, the Maine-based singer/songwriter has crafted a warm and welcoming record that unveils heretofore-untapped depths of ingenuity and optimism. Touching upon a range of styles and musical setting – spanning pastoral folk, railroad blues, front porch country, and plangent balladry – Gossip in the Grain proves to be LaMontagne’s most creative and emotionally expansive collection to date.
LaMontagne’s 2004 debut, Trouble, became one of that year’s most acclaimed debuts, spawning an instant classic single in the album’s title track. He returned two years later with the stunning Till the Sun Turns Black, a deeply personal work haunted by a complex and compelling melancholy. The album proved both another popular and critical success, debuting in the top 30 on the Billboard 200 and further marking LaMontagne as a major American artist.
After spending 18 long months on the road, LaMontagne returned to Maine and decompressed. He listened to little music, choosing to focus his energies on restoring his new house, once owned by the late Norman Mailer. In early 2008, he began plotting out his next record and before winter’s end, was ready to return to work. Where LaMontagne’s previous records had been recorded closer to home, this time he opted to cross the Atlantic in order to work alongside his longtime collaborator, producer Ethan Johns at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Box, Wiltshire.
“Ethan came to me last time,” LaMontagne says. “I was living in Woodstock and he traveled out there so I could be close to home. He recently moved back to England and he lives about 10 minutes from the studio, so it was only fair that I go to him this time.”
LaMontagne’s two previous albums were largely solo affairs, with Johns serving as multi-tasking instrumentalist. Gossip in the Grain sees him joined by members of his touring band, bassist Jennifer Condos and guitarist Eric Heywood (Johns largely handles drum duties, as touring drummer Jay Bellerose was on the road with Robert Plant & Alison Krauss at the time of the recording). Along with his band members, LaMontagne is also joined on two tracks – “A Falling Through” and “I Still Care For You” – by singer/songwriter Leona Naess, a friend and artist whose work he has long admired.
“Ethan and I work very well together, one-on-one. I don’t know what it is that’s going on there, but we can sort of read each other’s minds a little bit, so it’s really easy for us to work together alone. It’s uncluttered. But we’ve done that. Touring with Jen and Eric has been amazing. They are both incredible people and musicians. I just love the sound we create as a band. It felt like a natural evolution to record this album together.”
Throughout the record there are recurrent themes of reconnection, of relationships torn down and then reborn, presented with the most sanguine outlook of LaMontagne’s career. While some songs, such as the tender “Sarah,” feel intensely confessional, others appear to reveal truth through carefully drawn characterizations. As ever, LaMontagne is reticent about delving into the emotional source of his material, preferring to let the work speak for itself.
“I just don’t like to talk about that stuff,” he admits. “It seems unnecessary to deconstruct it. It’s like seeing a magician or a juggler – you don’t really want to know how they do it. You just want to enjoy it for what it is.”
Freewheeling, confident, and utterly idiosyncratic, Gossip in the Grain confirms Ray LaMontagne as an artist and a craftsman without limits, a songwriter who is able to work his melodic gifts and distinctive lyricism through any of the myriad musical traditions that catch his fancy.