No singer/songwriter in the ’90s made an album as gorgeous as the self-titled debut by the sublimely gifted Ron Sexsmith, a Canadian who worked as a messenger in Toronto before devoting himself to music. Like Ray Davies, Sexsmith is an unpretentiously distinctive observer of life’s usual things — romance, parenthood, places, seasons. And like Tim Hardin’s, his lived-in voice is a deeply affecting instrument, resonating with heartbreaking tenderness. Each wavery note he sings on this gentle masterpiece conveys a wealth of emotions, to which producer Mitchell Froom, outdoing himself, adds sparing instrumentation — a subtle rhythm section, occasional keyboards and a bit of cello behind Sexsmith’s skillfully picked acoustic guitar — that suits the diverse tenors of these songs. Able to accommodate crisp rock (the Kinksy “Summer Blowin’ Town” and the rollicking “First Chance I Get”), Sexsmith and Froom also manage a mild bit of gumbo (“In Place of You”) and swoony classic pop (“Wastin’ Time”).
Perhaps two of the dozen originals (joining a sterling cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Heart With No Companion” and an atmospherically adjusted second version of “There’s a Rhythm” produced by Daniel Lanois) could have been omitted; the rest are exquisite examples of Sexsmith’s creative magic. The deliberate “Lebanon, Tennessee” playfully imagines and praises a homey place the native of a small Ontario town might like to live, while “Speaking With the Angel” brings throat-tightening compassion to the threat of interference with infancy’s innocence: “Would you poison him with prejudice from the moment of his birth…He that never lays blame, he don’t even know his name.” “Secret Heart,” “In Place of You” and “Words We Never Use” delve into the dark mysteries of loving and come up on the right side of a good thing; “Galbraith Street” reminisces about an old neighborhood and the price of maturity. An uncanny album of sweet tears and warm smiles, Ron Sexsmith is a must-hear.
The prior self-released cassette — which the artist later pressed on CD and sold at shows and by mail order — has a very different sound. In a concerted attempt to gumbo up syncopated rhythms, Sexsmith is energetically backed by a piano-playing bassist and a drummer (both of whom add backing vocals), with a stack of friends — including producer Bob Wiseman — intruding on his compassionate (if melodically imprecise) voice with generous but unnecessary horns and guitars. For all the mistreatment of songs (whose jumble level seems to be in indirect proportion to compositional potency), there’s plenty of evidence of what was to come, even beyond the roomy acoustic rendition of “Speaking With the Angel,” the only song to be carried forward. The similarly intimate “Trains,” the joyous romantic declaration of “In This Love” and the country sweetness of “Every Word of It” all shine with the raw ingredients Ron Sexsmith burnished to such glowing power.
The self-effacing title of Other Songs is appropriate in that it connotes the workaday craftsmanship of Sexsmith’s wonderful writing. As a fully integrated singer and composer whose voice and tune are inextricably entwined (not that he can’t interpret the work of others), Sexsmith finds himself things to sing with the same lack of evident strain as his delivery. His songs don’t sound fussed-over, accidental or hammered into shape; rather, they feel like the bespoke products of an artisan satisfying his own standards. In fact, these “other songs” are, overall, better — more weightless in sound and forceful in lyric — than their predecessors. “Pretty Little Cemetery” and “Strawberry Blonde” are both achingly beautiful — tender short stories about age, beauty and generations that well up with deeply felt emotions. “She was not the girl next door, but the girl from ’round the corner,” he sings in the latter, and you instantly know this is not a standard tale of puppy love. “Nothing Good” is second-person consideration of cheating that makes no bones about its allegiance: “He’s trading love for this sordid night of bliss / Nothing good … could ever come from this.” Although a gloomy tone pervades the album, Sexsmith finds hope amid the dismay (in “Thinly Veiled Disguise,” he offers, “As far as I can tell, the dark as well / Wears a thinly veiled disguise”) as often as trouble in paradise (“Anytime I start to speak my mind I break her heart”). He ends with a somber weather report, “April After All,” that notes, “Tears are bound to fall” but also “That’s how I’ve come to you.” Sexsmith is no dreamer. He knows that life is not simply one thing or another, and on Other Songs he considers both sides.
Whether it was one collaboration over the line for Sexsmith and Froom (who again co-produced with Tchad Blake), the deleterious effects of a label losing hope or enthusiasm for the artist or simply a creative judgment call, Whereabouts drifts in a way none of Sexsmith’s other albums do. Carrying along such instrumental window dressing as banjo, strings, woodwinds and horns, it is overly languorous and stylistically diverse. (In the first regard, it’s surprising that the album’s drummer is Pete Thomas, who has handily powered more Elvis Costello records than you can shake a stick at.) The handsome and stately “Still Time,” a romantic reverie which actually has a hook of sorts, gets the album off to a solid start, but things go off in various directions from there. “Riverbed” is chamber pop, “Feel for You” and “Beautiful View” could easily come from Muswell Hillbillies, “One Grey Morning” is shrouded in a New Orleans funeral processional and “Right About Now” is sweet but uninvigorating soul. The songs are swell, and — individually — the tracks are fine, but the album does not leave as strong an impression as his others.
Out of his label deal, Sexsmith changed producers as well for Blue Boy, getting Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy in to introduce Ron to the tang and pluck of the Southwest. They picked up the tempo, pushed him to sing more forcefully, got the Hammond organ Leslie cabinet twirling and plugged in the electric guitars — all of which moved Sexsmith to a safe and happy musical place that supports, rather than competes with, his songwriting. So how come the first track not only references longtime Froom clients Los Lobos in its lyrics (“how can this song survive?”), it also uses honking baritone saxes to summon up that group’s East LA R&B vibe? No matter, the easygoing Blue Boy handily returns the focus to stunners like “Just My Heart Talkin’,” “Cheap Hotel,” “Thumbelina Farewell” and “Don’t Ask Why.” In that context, the Burt Bacharach-styled arrangement of the swoony “Foolproof” and the delicately gorgeous “Fallen” (both sterling reminders not to underestimate Sexsmith’s range or skill as a vocalist — no doubt a lesson he learned from his pal Elvis) and offer welcome counterpoint rather than confusion.
Ambling down the relaxed, comfortable path begun on Blue Boy, Cobblestone Runway delivers Sexsmith, the contented family man who can’t stop thinking about the bigger picture, into an outcropping of the terra firma long inhabited since the late ’80s by John Hiatt. Free of major-label pressures, Sexsmith delivers characteristically fine songs on familiar themes (which include the sincere religious homily of “God Loves Everyone”), sounding more at ease than ever. Produced by Martin Terefe (who’s made records with Leona Naess and also plays bass and synthesizer here), the album has a playful, organic feel, as if it were the product of a tasteful, well-traveled band rather than a self-contained solo artist working for the first time with Swedish session players. While some of the imaginative and detailed arrangements are pleasingly inconspicuous, odd touches abound and a few tracks are tricked out in truly surprising ways. There’s a percussive sound on “Former Glory” which will have you checking your speakers for rips; the multi-tracked backing vocalist on “These Days” (a song which assails the current state of romance) pays obvious homage to “Walk on the Wild Side”; “Heart’s Desire” ends in a hail of synth/guitar noise. The funny-as-fuck ’80s disco bump under the autobiographical “Dragonfly on Bay Street” sounds like Boney M but actually works to Ron’s advantage. “Gold in Them Hills,” which Sexsmith sings alone, accompanying himself on piano, also appears in a remix with Coldplay singer Chris Martin adding his voice.
Working in London with some of the same people (including Terefe as producer, bassist and guitarist), Sexsmith relaxed a bit too much on Retriever. The very first lyrics on the album (“I’m a bit run down / But I’m OK / I just feel like calling it a day / But you send me back to the start”) all but explain the lack of inspiration or effort that lessens the consequence of this fine-sounding music. “For the Driver” pointedly portrays remorse and guilt in a few perfect lines (“I feel for the driver / In the aftermath / Of a child who chased a ball / Across his path”), but such emotional power is surprisingly rare here. “How on Earth” matches strong craft and production, but little else here is so attention-getting. Sexsmith is incapable of dishonesty, insincerity or cliché in his writing or performance, but none of these melodies soar and the lyrics reveal nothing new for him.
Rarities gathers studio leftovers, demos, soundtrack contributions, a live recording (“Words We Never Use,” which Sexsmith, in the liner notes, believes is a better vocal performance than in its studio rendition), his cover of Nilsson’s “Good Old Desk” and the pre-remixed Martin duet on “Gold in Them Hills.” Although it contains no gems, Rarities is well worth hearing.