by Rob van Alstyne
Release Date: April 6, 2004
If you get songwriting props from Elvis Costello chances are
you know how to write a tune. Ron Sexsmith (a personal EC favorite who’s
opened for the bespectacled one on multiple world tours) is a "songwriters/songwriter"
a craftsman whose skills are beyond question. The antithesis of a rock star,
Sexsmith worked as a mailman in Canada before scoring a songwriting deal with
Interscope and finally getting a performing contract at 30 years of age in 1994.
A master of mellifluous adult pop, Sexsmith's latest (and seventh
record), Retriever, doesn't disappoint. Re-teaming with producer Martin
Terefe (who helmed Sexsmith's keyboard and drum machine heavy Cobblestone
Runway in 2002), Sexsmith wisely opts for a more organic approach this time
around. Divorced a few years back, he's evidently found love once again judging
by the buoyant set of love songs on this set ("Happiness," "How
On Earth"). Cloying lines like "she fills my heart with song"
are fortunately always counterbalanced by edgier words elsewhere ("I fear
sometimes we ain't got a hope in hell / I've half a mind to hang the next fool
to wish me well"). Elegant piano tunes form the core of the album, and
Sexsmith is equally formidable on Retriever's emotionally battered ballads ("I
Know it Well") as its buttery mid-tempo pop rock ("Not About to Lose").
Many of the songs benefit from stately string arrangements by David Davidson
(who’s worked with everyone from …And You Will Know Us By the Trail
of the Dead to John Mayer) but Sexsmith's warm words and sincerely affecting
voice (a smokey and rich Kermit the Frog sound-a-like) ensure that none of it
gets too syrupy. Anyone enamored with Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello's Painted
from Memory will find similarly stirring sophisti-pop here.
Stars at Noon
(Self Starter Foundation)
Brooklyn sextet Sea Ray is an odd amalgam of sounds, a faux
Brit sounding singer, an angular lead guitarist with some serious chops and
a cellist who swathes the whole thing in a beautiful haze. Although this is
only the second proper Sea Ray album the group has been in the game a long time
(LP No. 1 came out all the way back in 1997) so perhaps it shouldn't come as
a surprise how polished Stars at Noon is.
Singer/guitarist Jordan Warner has focused lyrical themes
(dislocation, emotional numbness) and paints them vividly on each track. The
warm tones of keyboardist Jeff Sheinkopf provide the perfect bed of sound for
Warner and fellow guitarist Greg Zinman's hypnotic riffs to float over on cuts
like "Stray Dog's Got It Made" in which Warner manages to make self-absorbed
apathy ("I've got no sympathy for the man who stays when the bullets fly/Not
my war, not my scene, I'm gonna go on my own time/One thing I always find the
stray dog's got it made") sound oddly appealing.
Any fans of innocent dreamy folk à la the Innocence
Mission or the Sundays should already have shrines to Lisa Cerbone in their
cardigan-heavy closets. Ordinary Days, the first record in seven years
from one of the East Coast's best songstresses is a spare effort, getting by
on little more than a pair of voices and acoustic guitars for much of its running
time. One half of the pair, naturally, is Cerbone. The other half is Mark Kozelek,
head man of indie mainstays Red House Painters and, more recently, Sun Kil Moon.
Kozelek's presence is felt all over this record, whether it's
providing the underpinning vocal harmony to Cerbone's airy Kate Bush-like lead
on "Swallowing Stones" or supplying the spacey lead guitar textures
that drive the Neil Young-ish rocker "Ruthless Order." Additional
accompaniment comes in the form of drummer Tim Mooney (American Music Club)
and bassist Geoff Stanfield (Black Lab)—all are accomplished musicians
in their own right and have the perfect "less is more" playing aesthetic
to suit Cerbone's downcast tunes. Odes to forgotten places ("Araby")
are rendered with a spare directness that is immediately haunting ("I stand
in the summer wind of the bazaar, I find my hearts grown heavy in the dark /
The clock says it's time to go / I'm not ready yet to find that deserted train
that leads me back to Araby"). None of Ordinary Days’ tracks
are boring strum-alongs either, as both Kozelek and Cerbone pepper their acoustic
playing with emphatic picking and mournful minor chords that could make the
songs riveting even if they didn't boast an evocative singer to go with them.
Free Expression Expanded Reissue
The Velvet Crush were once the “it” band of the
moment. Just 10 short years ago, Sony had pinned their hopes on the Rhode Island
group's Teenage Symphonies to God as the album that would finally push
the instantly accessible sounds of power-pop to the masses. By 1994, power-pop,
a silly genre name originally coming into use back in the 1970s to describe
the mega-melodic and harmony-heavy rock being overlooked amidst the sea of Led
Zeppelin's arena bloat, had long been deemed music's lovable loser by the industry.
It's never a good sign when the official poster boys of a genre, in this case
early 70s Memphis outfit Big Star, are barely known outside of record geek circles
(although lauded by musicians from Elliott Smith to Wilco).
Unfortunately Teenage Symphonies did little to change
that, despite providing some truly mindblowing and classic tunes. The band has
soldiered on ever since though, with a new album slated for release this June
and a recent expanded reissue of their lost classic, 1999's Free Expression.
Free Expression is pure, unadulterated VC, all soaring vocals and mesmerizing
guitar riffs, made when the band was in between labels and free to make records
however they damn well pleased. Recorded with the aid of longtime pal Matthew
Sweet at his house in L.A. it's a relaxed and thoroughly Californian rock album.
Listen closely to the breezy "Between the Lines" and you can almost
feel the warm sand in your toes (no small feat if you're listening station happens
to lie in the barren and generally frigid environs of Minnesota). Cheez-wiz
keyboards, sassy tambourine fills and garish trumpet solos pop up intermittently
to spice things up and are generally effective instrumental devices (albeit
goofy); but the secret ingredients that make the album essential are Sweet (his
harmony vocals on cuts like "Goin' to My Head" are worth the price
of this album alone, and his production skills are impeccable) and pedal steel
maestro Greg Leisz who injects a bit of high and lonesome country into the otherwise
boogie-heavy setting of cuts like "Heaven Knows."
The second disc of demo recordings (new to this reissue) isn't particularly
revelatory, but it hardly matters. Free Expression was already out of
print, and any excuse to get extra Velvet Crush on the market should be greeted
solely with hurrahs by pop music lovers.