Ron Sexsmith is pop’s perfect anti-hero. Imagine a low-key, almost painfully shy individual who possesses a keen eye for the human condition, in spite of his obvious introversion, and you’ve got Ron Sexsmith. Sexsmith has been long lauded by his peers (see Elvis Costello, John Hiatt and Paul McCartney; no small fish in the pantheon of great songwriters) as one of the most personal and observant songwriters of the modern day, an atypical alternative to the slough of self-pitying, lowest common denominator drivel that gets most big-label support. Sexsmith’s untainted, disarming angle on the world is a breath of fresh air, equally represented on each of his first five records. His latest release, 2004’s Retriever, ups the ante one more step, displaying his most accomplished work to date in both a musical and world-weary sense.
Sexsmith’s first three albums, all released by Interscope, were virtually interchangeable, sparse, melancholy affairs that rarely dared to put any noise citations at risk. Observant ears thought all three albums to be of equally high merit, even if they were all understandably subdued. Interscope thought much to the contrary, though, dropping Sexsmith from their roster following Whereabouts in 1999. Enter Steve Earle. Earle offered to produce his follow-up, the album that turned out to be 2001’s Blue Boy. The curious musical dichotomy raised by their collaboration fruited Sexsmith’s most colorful album to date, emphasizing his lyrical prowess while injecting a hint of Earle’s trademark twang-rock. Cobblestone Runway followed the next year, finding Sexsmith with another producer and another style. Producer Martin Terefe tweaked Sexsmith’s sound again, this time dropping electronic flourishes into his singer/songwriter motif, not coincidentally following the success of David Gray’s similarly-flavored White Ladder.
If there was any complaint on Sexsmith during the early days of his recording career, it’s that many of his songs were musically underdeveloped, lacking any distinct hooks or any sense of urgency. Blue Boy and Cobblestone Runway marked a step ahead in his musical evolution, fleshing out his sound while still keeping his lyrical sensibility at the forefront. The cleverly-titled Retriever is the next step in that evolution, an album that feels confident and full-bodied all the way through, even when its lyrical content is very much the opposite. Gone for the most part are the modest electronics of Cobblestone Runway, replaced this time around by swells of strings and even the occasional pop hook, courtesy of Terefe and a handful of crack guest musicians.
One can’t go through a Sexsmith record without noting some of the lyrical highlights, and the opening “Hard Bargain” is no exception: “How’s a guy supposed to fail with someone like you around? / I’ve tried, I’ve tried to no avail / You just can’t seem to let me down, you drive a hard bargain…” He’s not afraid to let his once-veiled optimism bubble to the surface. There seems to be a common theme of newfound love, which could easily be to blame for such a development. “Not About To Lose,” the hopeful “Tomorrow In Her Eyes” and “How On Earth” all refer to “her” in a very starry-eyed fashion, and it’s hard not to let the unabashed sentiment and good vibes just wash over you.
The centerpiece of the record is “From Now On,” quite possibly the most resplendent and buoyant piece of music Sexsmith has ever put together. Guest player Ed Harcourt contributes a wonderful guest spot on the piano, replete with timely crescendos and an energetic melodic display in the song’s coda. By the time Sexsmith croons “They’re in the business of panic and control / We’re in the business of the heart and of the soul” in the bridge you almost feel obliged to clap along or at least nod and grin in agreement. Following it is “For The Driver,” a plaintive number with an almost-otherworldly sense of sympathy and compassion, and “Wishing Wells”, another uptempo tune that masks an unusually vitriolic Sexsmith sentiment (“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…”). As a trio, they very much represent the rollercoaster nature of human emotions, a singular common thread in three songs that could easily be construed as entirely divergent.
On the back page of the album’s liner notes, Sexsmith dedicates Retriever to the memories of Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash and Elliott Smith, making it seem that Sexsmith has a well-developed sense of what truly important music sounds like, even if none of it really sounds like his own. Retriever is the sound of a truly gifted songwriter at the top of his craft, less imitating his predecessors than grafting their sensibilities onto his own evolving style. It very much represents to the music world what Garden State does to the film world; an unpretentious, sympathetic work that is unfailingly attuned to the human experience. Pick up this album, and then work backwards in the Sexsmith canon if you haven’t already, because once you get going, you won’t be able to stop.
The Ritualists – Painted People
The Ritualists play some determined, strong-willed music
After listening to Painted People by The Ritualists, I was very surprised to learn that this is their debut album. This band shows a maturity in their music that I would not expect from a first album and provides inspirational sounding tracks with ‘reach for the stars’ type of guitar riffs. I hear a modern version of U2 in The Ritualists, along with an influence of Radiohead. Their songs are full, wholehearted post-punk hooks with a lead singer that has a sizeable range.
“Rattles” opens the album, and it’s the type of song that shows their audience that they are here to stay. It has a great build-up of excitement and intensity. The band explains that this song is “A combination of dark, deep-pocketed verses juxtaposed with big, flashy choruses is a key element to tracks”.
“Ice Flower” and “Worthiest One” welcomes an electronic wave to the album and showcases just how impressive lead singer Christian Dryden’s range is. His ability to hit those high notes with such conviction puts my falsetto abilities to shame. “Worthiest One” brings this sort of nostalgic feeling- it’s a rock ballad with a floaty guitar riff.
“She’s The Sun” is a great follow-on from “Worthiest One” as it transfers the mood upwards and directs the music into more of a hypnotic vision, which conveys “the band’s inner Sixties Love Child”. “I’m With The Painted People” has a really relatable background to the song. Dryden felt a larger than life inspiration from people like David Bowie and Simon Le Bon, these artists felt like soulmates, which can be lonely at times. It wasn’t until he ventured out into the clubs of the lower east side of New York which helped him feel comfortable to express his creative vision freely. The song is all about finding like-minded people.
There are hooks galore and catchy choruses in pretty much every song. “With this record, I’ve specifically tried to be anthemic,” admits Dryden. “I’ve always loved going to shows, where immediately after the performance, and even on the ensuing days after, you just can’t help but remember and sing the songs you’ve just heard. It’s almost like a higher form of communication.” The Ritualists play some determined, strong-willed music and Painted People shows hints of variations with different genres explored throughout. They sound motivated and in return have produced motivating music for their listeners.
The Decline – Flash Gordon Ramsay Street
What The Decline get absolutely spot-on is their clinical, unrelenting brand of skate punk
It’s possible that since punk broke through to the mainstream in the mid to late ’90s, listeners outside of Australia think Frenzal Rhomb are the only band to have come from the lucky country. It’s true that during the rise of that Epitaph and Fat Wreck sound, Frenzal Rhomb became the namesake of the genre from Australia. However, Australian punks know that their history stretches long before the release of Survival of the Fattest. From the legendary sounds of The Saints to the rock n’ roll infused punk of Radio Birdman, Australia’s punk rock history is not only rich but very much precedes the genre’s mainstream explosion.
Frenzal Rhomb were another chapter in punk down under and for many, they opened a lot of doors. If not at the very least, proved that there were fertile grounds for new bands to emerge across the vast land. Western Australia’s The Decline formed in 2005 and quickly showed their talent for writing up-tempo melodicore that shred as much as it soared. From their 2010 debut, I’m Not Gonna Lie To You, it was clear that the band were equal parts snotty, urgent, funny, and melodic. Like the Frenzal Rhomb formula, they’ve got all of it in spades with a mean streak of Australianness that is both endearing and extremely relatable. Their latest album is no different.
From the title alone you can tell you’re in for a shedload of fun, and while it’s easy to think that Flash Gordon Ramsay Street is just goofy humor, it’s actually got a lot of pointed commentary too. From the animal-supportin’, veggie-lovin’, attack on meatlovers and meatheads (“Brovine”), to the real-estate market questioning “Smashed Avo”, there’s plenty of current talking points that The Decline run through. Sure, you also get vegan buffalo wing recipes (surprisingly, not the song titled “Bullet With Buffalo Wings”) and a love for The Legend of Zelda, but who says you can’t sing about Marxist theories while talking about your love for Nintendo?
What The Decline get absolutely spot-on is their clinical, unrelenting brand of skate punk; taking plenty of cues from the best of the NOFX / No Fun At All up-tempo, hardcore-derived brand of punk. The hooks on Flash Gordon Ramsey Street are as infectious as horny teens on spring break, highlighted by the endless harmonies on songs like the terrific “It Was Always You” and the call and response male-female vocal attack of “Verge Collection”. Brevity is also key, as the majority of the songs here never overstay their welcome with the longest clocking in at just 3:15 (the wistful closing of “Josh”).
Flash Gordon Ramsey Street is concise, to-the-point, and a furious medley of skate punk urgency that is relevant to young adult life as punks in Australia. Great production values to boot mean you can’t go wrong here.