Ray LaMontagne has a voice like a 1978 Pontiac Trans Am: strongly masculine, quantifiably powerful, soulful in a decidedly passé sense, and a touch too blustery when it gets revved up. But no matter how hard he growls, he can’t sing his way out of being a dutifully sensitive soft rocker. When LaMontagne rumbles into his fourth album, God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise, by wrapping his impeccably well-coiffed rasp around the low-key boogie of “Repo Man,” he’s about as gritty as Jack Johnson covering Lightnin’ Hopkins. He fares better in his higher register, easing up on the overplayed gruffness and affecting the tenderhearted, love-starved, but still manly man pose that has made so many coffee-shop baristas and Ford Focus-driving housewives fantasize about “rescuing” this hunky, guitar-strumming loner as he emotes from their iPods.
While LaMontagne gives co-album credit to his touring band on God Willin’, suggesting a move toward a more collaborative rock ’n’ roll sound, it’s not much of a departure from the standard singer-songwriter approach of his other albums. The only sign of aggression on God Willin’ is the record’s forceful slightness; draggy country numbers like the title track make the appealing “Beg, Steal Or Borrow” seem almost jaunty, while “Are We Really Through” and the wispy Spanish accents of “This Love Is Over” shore up LaMontagne’s sad-bastard credentials without breaking a sweat.
LaMontagne has mostly stayed out of more unsettling shadows since dabbling in the baroque rainy-day balladry of 2006’s underrated Till The Sun Turns Black. Instead, God Willin’ plays like a series of songs that could each accompany a montage of scenes where Sandra Bullock pensively contemplates a temporarily troubled romantic relationship over sunsets and breathtaking ocean vistas. Yes, it’s pleasant escapism, but when there’s nothing genuinely heartfelt at stake, who’s going to care after the credits roll?