Tuesday, March 1, 2011
MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: RON SEXSMITH - LONG PLAYER LATE BLOOMER
Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, Metallica, Mötley Crüe, Ron Sexsmith. One of these things is not like the other. Yet, that is a list of artists that have all used veteran hit-maker Bob Rock as producer. The idea is clear here. Sexsmith is regarded, hell, revered as one of the cosmos' most brilliant songwriters. Artists line up to sing his praises and products, but somehow over his career that breakthrough hit has never come his way. Some critics have been sniping about all his albums sounding the same. So, who better to push him out of a perceived rut than a man with a golden touch, and a sympathetic countryman as well?
Here's the problem I have with the above scenario: It is a perceived rut. Sexsmith's only artistic problem is that his first album was so strong he set the bar very high. He's consistently reached that height since, and excuse me if continued excellence is some sort of music crime. In a just world, benevolent patrons would shower him with commissions and Polaris prizes, but this is a biz where, if a Chris Martin tips his hat, wags expect Coldplay-level sales. Art and hype don't always come together, and Sexsmith, with his hang-dog looks and 70's pop perfection, is only going to appeal to a select audience in all probability.
However, I don't have a big problem with bringing Rock on board, since he's obviously a smart guy, and has his own pop credentials, a Payola$ member for gosh sake's. And it's not like he's going to have Sexsmith doing Love In An Elevator. I'll go as far to say Rock pushed him in just the right directions on this disc. It is, on the Rock-Bon Jovi-Crüe scale, the softest thing the producer's ever worked on. But on the Sexsmith side, it's the punchiest, power pop he's attempted. Yes, the drums are bigger. So are the vocals, the strings, the overdubs. There are female vocalists doing some doo-be-doo's at one point, surely a first for Ron. Yet, it's never drastic. The arrangements and add-ons only ever serve the songs. The bigger sounds seem to bracket the typical Sexsmith bon mots, and make them stand out as that much more witty.
I had a different introduction to the album, hearing the new songs first on a TV concert on CMT the other day. Even though it was a full band show, I was quite worried about the new material, which seemed flat and sub-par. But then, two days later, I hit play on the actual cuts, and found the album full of life, the same songs now raising the hairs on my neck, with the most beautiful melodies in the current recording world. TV's often a crappy place to watch a concert, especially when there's no audience, plus it also speaks to how Bob Rock has added to the bare bones brought his way.
In the end, Ron Sexsmith will always be exactly what he is, a songwriter striving for perfection in under three minutes. He combines McCartney's melodic sense, Lightfoot's lyrical directness, and Squeeze's playfulness. I myself would love it if he sold a million some day, but I'm not going to criticize my favourite Canadian musician just because he doesn't, and act like I know why. I do know why I love this album even a bit more than some of his others, it's precisely because the production is more commercial and bigger, and if that brings some new fans into the club, I think that's just great.