One of Ray LaMontagne's most incisive weapons is an obvious one - his truly remarkable voice, a rich, hoary husk of an instrument with just the right amounts of weight and translucency. The other is his partnership with producer Ethan Johns, who's also done stellar work with Ryan Adams in the past. Although his sleeper-hit debut Trouble (2004)'s follow-up 'Till the Sun Turns Black' was far from the commercial hit its predecessor was, it was a solid triumph over the 'difficult second album' myth. He returns yet again to oversee (and drum on) the third LaMontagne offering - but while 'Gossip in the Grain' is a technically adept record, it lacks the primal spark that his initial material was endowed with.
No, it's can't be that Ray LaMontagne has started to believe his own hype, although the silly, redundant ode-to-White-Stripes-drummer Meg White certainly indicates an arrogance and an 'I'll-put-what-I-want-on-my-album' attitude. It's not in the quality of the songs, either - most tracks here, from the swinging Sam Cooke-esque opener You Are the Best Thing, to the relaxed, banjo-tastic Hey Me, Hey Mama and the unearthly, spacious I Still Care For You are amongst his best work.
In between the highlights, however, is a propensity for lacklustre, mediocre fare (A Falling Through, Let It Be Me) that suggests the switch has been flicked to autopilot. It's a shame, really; a talented musician and exceptional vocalist, it seems that Ray LaMontagne is frittering away his gift on half-hearted, overly sappy love songs. Still, there are certainly some genuinely enjoyable moments here, for fans and newcomers alike.