By no means has Maine’s finest musical export had a perfect career arch. Ray the Mountain has suffered “pushy” producers, the “Grey’s Anatomy” circuit and insurance commercials on the path to his latest, the stripped-clean “God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise.”

Be glad.

For all of Ethan Johns’ platinum bids, the lush strings and big-budget smoothness Johns added to Ray LaMontagne’s last couple of records at times felt like a slimy studio gilding the lily. LaMontagne’s otherworldly freak rasp is one of the coolest organic tools in music worldwide today, and here it’s accompanied only by a band of merry players in a barn. It’s as it should be. LaMontagne finally sounds loose and comfortable.

“Repo Man” kicks it off with claws. The old bear’s cranked his growl to 11, over some dirty, dirty blues. Anger, blood and pedal steel.

“Old Before Your Time” is a soulful summer breeze, gently coming and going. The lyrics and band are simple and sure for four minutes strong: “What’s the use of stacking on every failure another stone?/’Til you find you spend your whole life building walls?” A bit quaint, maybe, but see “Jolene” from “Trouble” or “Lesson Learned” from “Till the Sun Turns Black.” Dude’s been through some trials; he’s allowed a moment or two to drop some knowledge.

It’s no shocker that sometimes the ballads can sag. The slow-swaying title track features a sandy Arizona verse, with pure Ray the Cowboy, giving way to a chorus that takes forever to make its point. Thing is, though, if his entire catalog is any indication, whatever bloated refrain is there now will make for a life-changing listen in a couple of years. That’s just the way he rolls.

“Devil’s in the Jukebox” is a fitting echo to its tambourine stomp cousin, “Till the Sun Turns Black.” But where “Till the Sun Turns Black” spotlights a LaMontagne run ragged and yearning, “Jukebox” is ripe with mischief and vigor, as though he’s turned a major page. As a proud Mainer, it’s a joy to see LaMontagne and his Pariah Dogs coming out swinging. We need him out there.


Mike Olcott is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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