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.
Hatchie – Keepsake
Keepsake, the debut album by Brisbane dream pop artist Hatchie is musical luminescence that can only be described as music written for the stars
Brisbane indie-pop artist Hatchie (known to her friends and family as Harriette Pilbeam) is in the envious position of being a pop artist unspoiled by the many trappings of what it is to be a modern pop artist. Unlike some of her contemporaries who craft music by committee or with Sheeran-like self-importance, Hatchie is as of now, unsullied by the pressures of the cookie-cutter pop machine. Hatchie’s debut full length is a showcase for a talent who is supremely confident and composed in her abilities, and Keepsake is musical luminescence that can only be described as music written for the stars. The album is also a wonderful throwback to pop’s dreamy 60s influences that shuffle in and out of this delirium while working alongside distinctly more current musical touches.
There is the lush dream pop sounds of “Without a Blush”, taking cues from the best of what Stars and Goldfrapp conjure but heaping a tonne of Pilbeam’s charisma on it. Like her vocals, “Without a Blush” has this elegance that has the ability to elevate songs from being beautiful to grand. It is the kind of vocal elegance that really shines through on songs like the skittering, beat-driven “Obsessed” and the alternative, guitar-fuelled (yay!) “When I Get Out”. Indie/electronic closer “Keep” is a wonderful end to proceedings.
However, the great strength of Keepsake is not just its composure in how all the songs have been put together. It is also this genuine, natural-sounding quality that permeates the album- nothing overly written, overly produced or put together by research groups or music analysts. It just sounds like talent. We can argue that much of pop music is constructed to appease the moment- designed to grab as much attention as possible in an A.D.D. world. And sure, that can be said about almost any kind of music, but the resulting aural tone of Keepsake is anything but transient or transparent.
The best way to combat tepid chart-topping music is to write better pop songs. Songs like “Her Own Heart” and the disco-toned “Stay” are examples of pop music that come across as timeless. We are moved by the songs found on Keepsake when we listen to them today. And I suspect that in 10 years time, or in 20, we will most likely feel the same. It is rare to find the sort of ageless beauty you find on Keepsake.