For Some, Soul Isn't A Special Ingredient

By Chris Richards
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 14, 2008

When soft-pop crooners need to stoke their tunes with a little pathos, the perennial solution seems as universal as it is misguided: Turn up the soul! There's no songbook that a little histrionic humph can't rescue, right? Wrong, wrong, wrong. And such are the perils of living in a post-"American Idol" popscape, where singers blindly equate showy, R&B-inspired vocalization with gravitas.

Enter folk troubadour Ray LaMontagne and pop-country hunk Billy Currington, two Joe-Six-Packs-turned-soulmen with new albums that use this logic to very different ends. LaMontagne's "Gossip in the Grain" sounds like a man stinking drunk on the Otis Redding catalogue, while Currington's "Little Bit of Everything" wisely imbibes from the fountain of R&B in tiny sips.

He may be soft-spoken, but LaMontagne's third album confirms that he is a ham of Celine Dion-esque proportions. No, he won't thump his chest or snap into boundless torrents of melisma, but the 35-year-old's rasp has grown so painfully precious, it's impossible to imagine him uttering a single syllable without squinting thoughtfully. The songs? They're fine.

The disc opens with "You Are the Best Thing," pandering to both hopeless romantics and wedding reception DJs. In an affectation somewhere between Redding and Van Morrison, LaMontagne trills, "I hope and I pray that you believe me when I say this love will never fade away." Purple prose aside, his sandpapery huff and puff is unnerving. "I Still Care for You" solves that problem as LaMontagne threatens to drift away from the song completely, pushing his wispy falsetto to ethereal heights.

Unfortunately, he comes back to Earth with the wink wink, nudge nudge of "Meg White," an open love letter to the White Stripes drummer that feels 10 times creepier than that song where Bob Dylan ogled Alicia Keys. The lyrics sound lighthearted enough on paper, but LaMontagne's lupine pant makes the song feel plain skeevy.

Currington, on the other hand, embraces levity with ease, tossing dashes of R&B into his country choruses like a dude tossing the pigskin with his buddies at a tailgate party. With his current single "Don't," he's 100 percent ladies' man. "Why don't you stay a little bit longer?" he begs on the chorus, wah-wah guitars and lap-steel each pleading along over a fluid R&B bass line.

Nowhere near as smooth but equally buoyant is "Life & Love and the Meaning Of" -- Currington playing the unimpeachable dreamer who lazes his days away staring at the clouds and staves off sleep under a star-dappled sky. But his don't-worry-be-happy ethos isn't always that easy to stomach. With "Swimmin' in Sunshine" and "I Shall Return," his nose for good times lands him at the same lame beach party that Kenny Chesney's been hosting for the past few years.

Most corny is the album's finale "Heal Me," a quiet stormer with a refrain that approaches the cartoonish. "Heal me with your sweet and sexy ways," the drawling lothario croons over guitars that sound transplanted from an old hair-metal ballad. "Feel me, your touch is all I crave."

Somewhere, Barry White is cringing.

DOWNLOAD THESE: LaMontagne's "I Still Care for You," Currington's "Life & Love and the Meaning Of," "Don't"

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