Sunday, August 10, 2008

Ron Sexsmith -- Exit Strategy For The Soul (2008)

Ron Sexsmith -- Exit Strategy For The Soul (Yep Roc)

I once got to meet Ron Sexsmith before a gig. He was hyper-polite and an all around nice guy. If he had been any different, I would have been shocked. He just reeks of empathy and humanity. I get the impression that when he breaks up with a girl, she apologizes for putting him through so much.

This makes his records and live performances so instantly comforting. But there’s more to him, of course. For one thing, he manages to be so nice and empathetic without being sickly sweet. And he is one of the most economical lyricists around, making interesting observations in a direct manner. These words are sung by a friendly tenor and set to low key melodic music.

About the music -- it’s kind of formulaic. The last time I saw Sexsmith live, I realized that very few artists are as locked into verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle eight than he is. He has a distinctive way with a melody. There’s not a whole lot of surprise anymore on a Ron Sexsmith album.

Yet his words and performing style are so appealing, that his records are pretty much guaranteed to be good. Perhaps the overwhelming consistency of his material may prevent the type of development that would lead to great albums in the future (and for the record, I think his one flat out great record is his sophomore effort, Other Songs). But every album is worthwhile.

The big wrinkle on this album is the horn backing on some of the songs. And not just any type of horns. Cuban horns. They provide color for one of the albums true highlights, “Brandy Alexander”. If you have the last Feist album, you already know this tune, as Leslie Feist co-wrote it with fellow Canadian Sexsmith.

The song is a simple metaphor -- a woman who is bad for him is like an addiction to the mixed drink. The song has a classic Sexsmith melody, and the piano that drives the song is augmented by horns and backing vocals from A Girl Called Eddy. It’s a real jaunty tune.

It’s followed by another song that is quintessentially Sexsmith, “Traveling Alone”. The simple combination of guitar and keyboard notes that opens the song leads into a creamy melody over light drumming. The premise of the song is as simple as can be -- no matter where we are or who we’re with, we are still in our own individual worlds: “though lives intermingle/our thoughts are left to roam/traveling alone.” This gets my vote for best use of the word “intermingle” in a pop song in 2008.

How does one cope with a world full of lonely people? Taking a cue from Todd Rundgren and Utopia, Sexsmith finds that love is the answer. This is the subject of “Ghost of a Chance”. It’s not just loneliness -- Sexsmith surveys all of the terrible things going on in the world, and surmises that without love “I just wouldn’t stand a ghost of a chance.”

I read a quote attributed to George Orwell that said something to the effect that this world would be a better place is everyone just treated each other nicely. Sexsmith seems to operate under this philosophy, as shown by “Impossible World”. On this song, producer Martin Terefe puts Sexsmith’s voice a bit more up front, only letting the other instruments get more prominent later in the song. Meanwhile, Sexsmith sings about how awful things seem, yet he still has faith that things will get better, and that faith might be due to faith in a higher power.

Terefe also worked with Sexsmith on his Cobblestone Runway album. As on that album, Terefe tries different sonic textures and instrumental approaches, so that this isn’t just a guy with his acoustic guitar. This time around, the album has a certain gloss to it. This isn’t a bad thing, as it gives the songs some layers that are easily peeled away to reveal the heart of these songs. Songs with a lot of heart.

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