Sexsmith's 'Retriever': Good Boy!

By Sean Daly
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 18, 2004; Page N06

If quirky Canadian popster Ron Sexsmith ever attracted an audience larger than a cozy gang of music geeks and select rock royalty, he'd be an ideal candidate for that best new artist award given out at the Grammys.

There's nothing new about him, of course -- the 40-year-old has released seven albums since 1995 -- but those awards knuckleheads seem to prefer a certain well-worn quality in that category (see Shelby Lynne, Fountains of Wayne). More important, Grammy honchos like their future stars to be very smart, kinda sexy and commercially viable -- and Sexsmith is all that and then some. He just needs a whole lot of help in the hype department.

Ron Sexsmith writes lyrics that are straightforward yet subtly layered. (Suzanne Plunkett -- AP)

Although Elton John was way off with his slobbery love for temperamental stinker Ryan Adams, the Rocket Man is right on with his jones for Sexsmith.

On "Retriever," his new release, the chubby-cheeked Ontario native with the tangled 10th-grade hair manages that rare blend of honesty and entertainment, substance and style, and never sacrifices one for the other. Following idols Bob Dylan and John Lennon, Sexsmith, who got his start penning songs for others, writes lyrics that are straightforward and subtly layered. Give him a chance, and Sexsmith will sneak up on you -- his Elvis Costello slanted-pop sensibility, his Coldplay-epic melodies, his Steve Earle earnestness -- and stick in your melon for good.

His toughest selling point has always been his voice: a thick, throaty warble (think a polyp-free Dylan circa "Nashville Skyline") that aims for notes just out of reach. But on "Retriever's" 12 tracks, his oft-melancholy mood has given way to gaga in love, and this shiny new 'tude gives his pipes an accessible sweetness. Opener "Hard Bargain" is a shuffling valentine with a bubbly guitar riff and an amusing vulnerability: "How's a guy supposed to fail with someone like you around . . . You just can't seem to let me down." He's much more defiant about love on "Not About to Lose," a shiny soundtrack for calliope featuring members of Brit-poppers Travis:

"I won't be taking fear's advice, not after all I've sacrificed."

Even the album's few politically charged cuts have shimmering silver linings. "From Now On," fueled by hard-pounding piano work from special guest (and fellow undiscovered gem) Ed Harcourt, cruises along like a strictly '70s SoCal rocker with a fist-raising chorus: "We live in times where choice is frowned upon . . . But it's a new day from now on." "Wishing Wells" takes a shot at reality TV, but despite the tired target, the song flat-out cooks. And "For the Driver" is a hymn for the downtrodden that has a curiously medieval bent, making him sound like a Canadian troubadour in King Arthur's Court.

For the most part, though, Sexsmith forgoes his usual trouble spots (a bad marriage, the powers that be, his brain) and focuses on that mushy-gushy feeling in his gut. On "Whatever It Takes" -- "a kind of tribute to Bill Withers," he says in the press notes -- Sexsmith dusts off some throwback Motown strings and a soul-strutting beat, and tops it all off with lovey-dovey "doo-doo-doos." And "Happiness" and "How on Earth" are the most shamelessly upbeat songs of his career -- and the closest thing to jangly pop singles he has concocted. If Sexsmith is going to break out in a big way, this is his best chance to do it. Here's hoping someone besides Elton John is listening.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company