Ray LaMontagne is a denim-clad throwback, and that makes him a pretty cool dude. Instead of ripping off Coldplay and John Mayer just like every other young singer-songwriter in America, the dude grew a thick-ass beard and studied the California cokeheads of the 1970s: Stephen Stills, Michael McDonald, J.D. Souther, Berkeley-era Van the Man and so on. As with his heroes, LaMontagne searches for that elusive common ground between confessional folk music and pleading Southern soul. And like that Parrothead Donavon Frankenreiter, he's not afraid to go retro; "You are the Best Thing" and "Let it Be Me," the first two cuts on his new album Gossip in the Grain, boast vintage horns, lush strings and a chorus of female singers -- finally, authentic balladry and blue-eyed soul from a dude who can actually grow decent facial hair.