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Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs

"Beg Steal or Borrow"
from the album God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise

Ray LaMontagne's voice is like sea salt caramel: smooth, thick and sticky, with a little bite. Some people think it's a bit too much; others can't get enough. In his previous albums, the Massachusetts-based singer-songwriter has tried different wrappings for that instrument: He's gone dark and moody; mimicked the manly chug-a-lug of his inspiration Stephen Stills; and put some horns on it, edging into retro-soul.

Nothing's worked perfectly. But on this new effort, self-produced at home with his touring band on hand, LaMontagne made the good decision to not worry much about packaging. God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise has a natural feel, comfortably ranging from bar-band rave-ups to contemplative acoustic numbers, with master pedal steel player Greg Leisz leading several tracks into the expertly unfussy territory of blue-chip Nashville country rock.

God Willin' has a lot in common with Robert Plant's recent country-tinged efforts, as well as the recent project from Dixie Chicks Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, Court Yard Hounds. Like that band, the Pariah Dogs free themselves from genre constrictions pretty much by accident: They're just very good players with a lot of experience, and they go where it feels comfortable. "Repo Man" is gut-bucket blues with old-fashioned lyrics (points off to LaMontagne for threatening to lay his straying sweetheart "right across my knee"); "Beg Steal or Borrow" is a Cat Stevens-style hero's journey. "This Love is Over" might have been a John Legend song. LaMontagne's gutsy, dramatic singing ties everything together. Crave it or turn up your nose, but it's sweet.

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