“Dylan made electric records and Blood on the Tracks. Neil Young had Harvest and…y’know, I don’t have to explain any of this.” So said Ron Sexsmithaffably, of coursemidway through his Tuesday-night set at the Birchmere in Alexandria last week. The nonexplanation came just before the Canadian singer-songwriter launched into “Keep It in Mind,” one of the harder-edged tracks from his new LP, Blue Boy. Parting ways with longtime producer Mitchell Froom, Sexsmith cut the album in Nashville with legendary alt-country godfather Steve Earle co-producing. Rougher around the edges than his earlier workbut just as carefully craftedBlue Boy sounds almost like a rock record. And it may be Sexsmith’s best LP yet.
“Rock” is a relative term when it comes to Sexsmith, who’s made his reputation with an impressive string of somber, minor-key albums on which even the fast songs rarely accelerate above midtempo and the slow ones can be downright funerealsometimes literally. “Pretty Little Cemetery,” from the singer’s second major-label LP, 1997’s Other Songs, was the highlight of a three-song acoustic interlude during the 90-minute Birchmere show. The sweetest, most devastating song about a graveyard you’re ever likely to hear, the tune turns on a throwaway line that’s so understated you barely notice it at first. Responding to a child who points out to an elderly couple that the cemetery is “where you go to when you die,” the “old man said, ‘Yes, we know.’” And that’s it. With a lyrical gift like that, who needs amplification?
Now, apparently, Sexsmith does. Dressed in a rumpled, blood-red tuxedo shirt and a perfectly distressed leather jacket, the lanky, baby-faced singer leaned into even his quieter songs with more intensity than their recorded versions would ever lead you to expect, singing them with the force and confidence of a natural hitting his stride.
Sexsmith’s voice ranges from a castrato-soft near-falsetto to a soulful, Boz Scaggs-like croonan unlikely set of pipes for an unlikely rocker. And his stage persona is about as far from David Lee Roth’s as it’s possible to be and still reside in the same universe. At the Birchmere, Sexsmith was polite and self-effacing between songs, seemingly almost embarrassed by the medium-sized crowd’s enthusiastic response. But after counting in each number, he exuded the easy confidence of a road-seasoned pro. Throughout the evening, Sexsmith and his band (some of whom doubled as members of the Supers, an unannounced, Beatles-obsessed opening treat) were just as adept at playing his trademark ballads as they were his slightly rowdier material.
Blue Boy manages the same feat. The opening “This Song”an “obnoxious” tune by the songwriter’s own estimationis a horn-driven piece of power pop worthy of an early Van Morrison LP. The lyrics, however, are Sexsmith at his hand-wringing best, drawing an evocative parallel between child-rearing and songwriting and encouraging listeners to help save the children: “For every song you ever heard,” the singer asks slyly, “how many more have died at birth?”
“Cheap Hotel,” which Sexsmith also performed at the Birchmere, may be the best of Blue Boy’s bunch, a moving, organ-fueled short story sung in part from the perspective of a battered wife looking from behind thick hotel curtains, in a room she and her kids have just escaped to. Alternately bitter and redemptive, the track moves from “God bless this cheap hotel” to “Goddamn this cheap hotel” in a single, heartbreaking verse. “Foolproof,” a warbling ballad that snatches a piece of melody from Paul McCartney’s “My Love,” was a piano-powered showstopper in concertand it’s even better on Blue Boy, where the song also features Kami Lyle’s gorgeous trumpet lines.
But the relative rockers are what separate Blue Boy from Sexsmith’s earlier work. Prodded along by Earle, who contributes guitar to several songs, Sexsmith segues easily from chiming, riff-happy Byrdsiana (“Don’t Ask Why”) to bluesy slow-burners (“Not Too Big”) to reggae-inflected pop-rockers (“Never Been Done”) as if he’d been doing it his whole career. And the clanging circus music of “Thumbelina Farewell,” replete with harmonium and maniacally fingerpicked guitar, is easily the noisiest thing Sexsmith has ever recorded.
Sexsmith has had his soft-around-the-edges Other Songs (not to mention his even softer self-titled major-label debut and 1999’s extra-mellow Whereabouts); now, with Blue Boy, he’s uncorked a masterful, tough-minded classic. Who knew he had it in him? At its best, Blue Boy simmers and stings in best Tonight’s the Night fashion; at its second best, it does the same, albeit at a slightly slower clip. Could the singer’s equivalent of Live Rust be just around the corner? Here’s hoping. If the Birchmere show was any indication, Sexsmith won’t have to explain that one, either.
I would, however, like an explanation from Rufus Wainwright, the overachieving son of great acid-tongued folky Loudon Wainwright III and great honey-voiced folky Kate McGarrigle. I have a serious problem with the guy. It’s got nothing to do with Wainwright’s baroque chamber pop, which, for two albums now, has been at least as ear-pleasing and inventive as it is extravagantly overarranged. And it’s also got nothing to do with his lineage; with parents like that, the kid was destined to have a musically charmed life. Which he’s very much had, by the way, bouncing oh-so-effortlessly from childhood piano lessons to touring with Mom to landing a major-label deal by the time he was 24 (with an assist from Van Dyke Parks, no less). That’s just fine with me. I’m OK with all of it, really. My problem is…well, it’s actually a little embarrassing: My wife has a crush on the guy.
I’ve tried to explain that Rufus isn’t really into girlswhich you’d think she’d notice, because Wainwright gives his sexual orientation a considerably higher profile on the new Poses than he did on his fine 1998 self-titled debut. “All these poses/Such beautiful poses/Makes any boy feel/As pretty as princes,” he sings on the LP’s faux-classical title track. And on “Rebel Prince” (noticing the obsession with young royalty?), Wainwright makes like a lovelorn chanteuse, searching for “mon maître le prince” who’s “burning with love for me.” But Kristin remains undeterred, playing “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” the disc’s admittedly amazing opener, over and over (and over) again with this faraway look in her eyes. I’m starting to get a little jealous, particularly because Wainwright does just about everything right with the song, from its elegantly simple piano to its guileless but clever lyrics, which find the singer confessing that, when he buys a bag of jelly beans, he’s inclined to eat the whole thing in a single sitting. It’s so damn disarming I could puke.
Wainwright has great taste in musical influences, too, including Randy Newman (echoed most effectively on Poses’ penultimate track, “In a Graveyard”) and his own father, who must be pleased as spiked punch by his son’s fine rendition of “One Man Guy,” the senior Wainwright’s ode to the displeasures of manly solitude. The junior Wainwright’s unabashed affection for cabaret and opera is also on impressive display throughout Poses. Though his voice is really just a pleasant, nasally buzz (think a more tuneful Morrissey), Wainwright regularly stretches well past its legal limits on octave-scaling tracks such as the music-hall-styled “Greek Song,” the sarcastic “California,” and, especially, the lavishly orchestrated “The Tower of Learning.” “Tower” is the album’s can’t-miss centerpiece, wherein Wainwright atomizes all the swooning romanticism of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” down to one beautifully lovesick couplet: “All the sights of Paris/Pale inside your iris,” he sings, elongating each syllable for maximum sensuality. Did I mention that Kristin and I once had a perfectly lovely weekend in Paris ourselves? Too bad I forgot to write a song about it, I guess.
Petty jealousy aside, Poses is one gorgeous record, chock-full of the same musical charms that gave Wainwright’s debut its staying power. And the man is dreamy, I suppose: He has great sideburns (check the album cover for details) and a tricky way with words that makes him seem well beyond his years, and, most important, he knows how to write one helluva pretty tune. Mom and Dad, like my wife, must be considerably impressed. CP