Where have you been, Ron Sexsmith?

Came home from work on Friday via the pub, and, wife out, plonked myself in front of the television with a pizza. This is actually pretty unusual, for me to just watch TV on my own aimlessly: for many years I barely watched any TV at all.

At 9pm I flicked to BBC4 to see if the Ron Sexsmith documentary, Love Shines, was worth bothering with. I’d never watched BBC4 before, and never listened to Sexsmith either, despite being aware of who his was since his eponymous debut album garnered glowing reviews in 1995. I’d always vaguely intended to investigate, but never got as far as buying a record.

The first 30 minutes of Love Shines left me thinking I wouldn’t bother; the bumbling, shy, middle-aged oaf introduced as Ron Sexsmith was lacking in charm, style, and presence, and no number of “songwriting” “luminaries” (Elvis Costello, Steve Earle, Feist) was going to make him seem otherwise. Not even Bob Rock (good grief, Bob Rock), who had been convinced to produce his latest album, could make Sexsmith seem exciting.

But slowly, surely, over the course of 90 minutes, Sexsmith’s melodies, which he seemingly wanders around all day composing in his head, a process which apparently renders him incapable of doing things like driving and other everyday mundanities, coiled their way around whichever bit of your brain it is that responds emotionally to awesome melodies.

After a full 90 minutes of the documentary, Sexsmith, overgrown manchild, came across as being possibly some kind of idiot-savante, gifted or perhaps cursed with a remarkable, fluid melodic sensibility, the craft to translate the refrains that seemed to pass through his head pell-mell into artful and emotional songs, but completely crippled by shyness and lack of the ego (or perhaps self-awareness) necessary to make the most of these melodies, these songs.

I remember first hearing Want One by Rufus Wainwright and throwing my arms up, splurging on a blog somewhere about his melodies, his singing, his insouciant talent. Sexsmith makes Wainwright seem like a lumpen try-hard; there’s none of the decadence in terms of presentation and personality, but equally there’s none of the pretension and seemingly little of the patchiness. Where Wainwright might destroy a melody by over-arranging or else deliberately pursue something less than catchy in order to satisfy some sense of ennui, Sexsmith can’t help but make every phrase and every line as approachable and effortless as possible.

Convinced that I shouldn’t have ignored Sexsmith so long, I decided to try and pick up an album by him on Saturday. HMV had 8 or 9 copies of Long Player Late Bloomer, the Bob Rock-produced LP that the documentary was about, but nothing else. Slightly put off by the idea of Bob Rock plastering everything in sparkly session musician slide guitar and syrupy strings, I was after the eponymous debut; apparently minimalist, just Sexsmith’s voice, guitar, and melodies with some drum loops.

But no such luck; I checked every record shop in Exeter. I know this because there aren’t many any more. And nowhere bar HMV had any Sexsmith at all. So this morning, desperate for a melodic hit, I went back to HMV, and found only one copy of Long Player Late Bloomer left; seemingly I wasn’t the only person in town who watched BBC4 on Friday night.

So I picked it up. And I was right; Bob Rock did slather everything on top of these songs; Hammond organ, flute, piano, massive AOR drums, accordion, harmonica, slide guitar, dobro, mellotron, pedal steel. It sounds full and expensive, rich and sweet. Too much for my tastes, as a rule, and when you factor in the country twang, the Radio 2 key changes… well, I ought to hate it.

But I don’t. It is too rich, too direct, too full, for me to listen to too often; there are no holes and empty spaces that I can find myself drawn to like most music I love these days. But the melodies; the way the chorus emerges in Believe It When I See It; the way No Help At All twists through its bridge; the way Late Bloomer changes direction. Exceptional. At it’s best it reminds me of peak Teenage Fanclub, or Danny McNamara’s most effortless early moments, of McCartney, of Wainwright. And having watched the documentary, having seen Sexsmith struggle with glimpses of success, with acclaim and integrity but without a suitable home for his family… well, I hope it sells a million copies.

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10 responses to “Where have you been, Ron Sexsmith?

  1. I’ve got the first album, but never really liked it. Secret Heart is great, but I seem to remember that the album is pretty sheen (not Charlie).

  2. Never heard of iTunes? Amazon Mp3? or to try before you buy Spotify has all of his albums http://open.spotify.com/artist/2wXBWJhbm1gfEVjyEEuhDH

    • I’m not a fan of Spotify-type services, or preview-listening facilities at transactional sites, because they all require listening at a computer, which I’d rather avoid wherever possible.

  3. Jeff Vander Werf

    Ron’s problem is that he hasn’t found his producer yet – the Mitchell Froom albums are the place to start though. As you experienced, a Ron Sexsmith fan roots for him and wants him to do well – he deserves success – so he is stuck trying to find a balance between a commercial sound and a better sound. I’m not sure what the right production approach is for him. I have all of his stuff including the lovely and spare Sexsmith & Kerr album but it ended up sounding too samey. Still, if you go looking for songs (words, melodies) rather than sounds (arrangements, production flourishes) you will never be disappointed in his work. My only advice is to take it slow – get each album starting at the beginning and digest it before moving on to the next. Also, if at all possible, see him live – he uses a fairly consistent road band anchored by Don Kerr’s drumming and vocal harmonies. He reads the forum on his website and responds to song requests made there.

    • Thanks for the pointers, Jeff; I think I definitely need to find the debut. I wonder if Ethan Johns might be able to do for Sexsmith what he did for Ray Lamontagne?

  4. Jeff Vander Werf

    Ethan Johns is a good pick. He needs someone who can let his voice and guitar shine with only the occasional support. I’m less familiar with Lamontagne but aware enough of Johns’ work with Ryan Adams to say it could fit.

  5. Pingback: Guided By Voices – ‘Bee Thousand’ – Round 4: Rob’s Choice | Devon Record Club

  6. A great article about a songwriting legend. I just bought Ron’s new DVD from http://papernyfilms.com/store.

  7. Mouthy, if you email me at nobigfiles@hotmail.com, I’d be happy to send you a wheelbarrow-full of Sexsmith MP3s

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