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Ron Sexsmith

Although not a major star in the eyes and ears of a record-buying public in awe with tried-and-tested artists such as ELVIS COSTELLO, RICHARD THOMPSON, PAUL McCARTNEY and JOHN HIATT (who all, incidentally, became Ron’s best-known fans), the cherub-couponed Canadian RON SEXSMITH has nevertheless stuck to his guns in several attempts to rise above the shaky parapet of the fickle music biz. Too mainstream for indie, or too indie for the mainstream, one awaits the day when Ron’s work reaches beyond fringe appeal.
Born January 8, 1964, St. Catherines, Ontario, Ron formed his first band at fourteen before duly working as a PETE SEEGER-inspired solo performer at the Lion’s Tavern in Port Dalhousie for pin-money. Branching out as a singer-songwriter after playing to crowds shouting for cover versions, 20-something troubadour SEXSMITH ventured further afield to Toronto, taking his wife and newly-born child. The mid-80s saw the man dish-out copies of a couple of rare cassette-only releases, “Out Of The Duff” (shared with Claudio) and one assumes, a V/A tape, “There’s A Way”. Leading out The Uncool (with backing from bassist/pianist Steve Charles and drummer Don Kerr), he struck up a deal with co-producer Bob Wiseman, although due to the latter’s commitments with Canadian country-rock combo Blue Rodeo, sessions for an album, and therefore the whole project, was, at times, put on hold. In the meantime, jobbing courier Ron fathered a second child, while the long-awaited cassette, GRAND OPERA LANE {*6} – named after a financial district in the city – finally reached retail in 1991. Thankfully, in the few years that followed, and through word of mouth, it cottoned on with some big wigs – and a few not so big.
A refreshingly unpretentious troubadour with a crystal vocal style reminiscent of JACKSON BROWNE or NICK LOWE (with perhaps the hesitant fragility of TIM HARDIN and the bite of ELVIS COSTELLO), SEXSMITH hooked up with noted producer, Mitchell Froom for his eponymous solo debut proper. Released on Interscope Records at the tail end of ‘95, RON SEXSMITH {*8} the album received almost unanimous praise from the press, especially from the more adult-muso end of the media spectrum. Dedicated to the late HARRY NILSSON, the record revealed Ron to be a songwriter in the truly classic sense of the term, maintaining the sparsest of acoustic backing and relying on subtlety and mood rather than vulgar confessionals; turn on `In Place Of You’, `Words We Never Use’, `Secret Heart’ and his rendition of LEONARD COHEN’s `Heart With No Companion’.
A writer’s writer, SEXSMITH continued along the same unassuming path for 1997’s OTHER SONGS {*7}, a largely downbeat, monochromatic collection of snapshots from the humble lens of one of contemporary rock’s most unlikely heroes. `Average Joe’, `Thinking Out Loud’, `Nothing Good’ and the LOWE-meets-COSTELLO-like `Thinly Veiled Disguise’, summed up the man’s self-deprecating inner self more than mere soothing words could suffice, while Froom’s glossy production gave his melancholic and intimate compositions a bit of heart and soul.
People were asking of his er… WHEREABOUTS (1999) {*7}, long before the set’s release date. Puns aside, the Canadian’s overtly DYLAN-esque fourth album was much of the same as his last recordings and, intentionally under-produced, it nonetheless garnered some of his more introverted tunes by way of `Riverbed’, `Feel For You’, `Doomed’ and `The Idiot Boy’. It would seem he was getting stuck in a kind of 60s/70s mind-set, although it was popular with the bedsitter brigade.
The boyish troubadour made a few significant changes with lonesome Cooking Vinyl Records set, BLUE BOY (2001) {*7}, not least the substitution of the ubiquitous Mitchell Froom/Tchad Blake production axis for country-kid STEVE EARLE (and his working partner RAY KENNEDY). Unsurprisingly then, the record displayed traces of EARLE’s survivor grit, firming up SEXSMITH’s sound and adding greater depth and gravitas to the songs rather than fluffing up the arrangements. Stylistically varied, the material was his strongest and most forthright to date, even taking a detour into West Coast jazz on standout track `Foolproof’; another jewel was his take of Canadian KYP HARNESS’s `Thumbelina Farewell’.
Subsequently signed to Nettwerk America, Ron subjected himself to another stylistic shake-up on COBBLESTONE RUNWAY (2002) {*7}, gamely laying his delicate craft open to the vagaries of technology. Never straying into full-blown electronica, but rather letting the genre’s subtle, ebbing textures work for him (examples: `Gold In Them Hills’, `Disappearing Act’ and `These Days’), he arrived at an engaging compromise which thankfully failed to impose upon the gentle humanity of his lyrics.
2004’s RETRIEVER {*7} was yet another to miss out on major sales, but with a sturdy fanbase following in tow, appreciating his part-mournful/part-self-conscious pop hooks, SEXSMITH was never going to give up the ghost. Produced this time around by Martin Terefe, the awkward but warmth of `Imaginary Friends’, rare single `Not About To Lose’, `Hard Bargain’ and `For The Driver’, rootsy Ron was at least confident in his own goals and ambitions.
Having featured on Ane Brun’s `Song No.6’ single, Ron resurrected a partnership from his Uncool salad days with drummer/cellist Don Kerr. Billed as SEXSMITH & KERR, 2005’s well-crafted and collaborative DESTINATION UNKNOWN {*6} was an acoustic affair that styled itself on a fantasy KINKS-like country-rock despair and plaintive pop; pick of the bunch was arguably `Only Me’; others were `Lemonade Stand’ and opener `Listen’.
Reunited with Froom on his solo return, TIME BEING (2006) {*6} once again had the singer compared to RAY DAVIES, while Ron’s songs took on a kaleidoscopic PAUL McCARTNEY approach on the AOR trips via the best bits of `All In Good Time’, `The Grim Trucker’ and `Jazz At The Bookstore’.
EXIT STRATEGY OF THE SOUL (2008) {*6} was definitely SEXSMITH’s most adventurous set to date. Whisked off to Cuba with producer Terefe to find the right Latin horn accompaniment for his soul-tinged compositions, Leslie Feist of BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE was also on hand to join up with the man on `Brandy Alexander’; `Music To My Ears’ and `One Last Round’ maintained a dramatic but dainty decorum that ultimately strayed little from Ron’s organic safe-house of sound.
Enlisting the help of producer Bob Rock (known better to metal fans), LONG PLAYER LATE BLOOMER (2011) {*7} caught Ron embracing a harder-edged set of songs, although heavy they were not. Always loved by the masses in his homeland, SEXSMITH still sounded as if he’d just listened to the complete works of ELVIS COSTELLO or PAUL McCARTNEY, although it was hardly his fault his syrupy vox came in for this type of flak. Reinstated with Cooking Vinyl and augmented by The SADIES’ Travis Good plus seasoned “hard rock” sticksman Josh Freese (in delicate mode), dedicated disciples would regard the melodious `Miracles’, `Believe It When I See It’ and `Get In Line’ as essential Ronald Eldon SEXSMITH songs. A subsequent throat cancer scare thankfully proved benign, and to his credit his thoughts of mortality probably spurred him on further.
Now approaching the big 5-0, but looking as if he was on his way from a day-release from uni (as depicted on the cover shot), the cherub-faced SEXSMITH and album number twelve, FOREVER ENDEAVOR (2013) {*7}, once again tried to match his melodies with the cleaner-than-clean production values of Mitchell Froom. Veering as always from the tricks and traits of his gimmicky peers, the reflective and searching “RonSmith” was in his elegant element on `Sneak Out The Back Door’, `Snake Road’, `Blind Eye’ and `Nowhere To Go’.
2015’s Jim Scott-produced CAROUSEL ONE {*7} – named rather appropriately after the conveyor-belt luggage system that greets LAX airport passengers from Toronto to L.A. – SEXSMITH once again displayed an uncanny resemblance to RAY DAVIES or JACKSON BROWNE in cool country/soul mode. Paddled with nostalgic craft and a carefree elegance, Ron was accompanied here by musicians John Ginty, Jonathan Graboff, Bob Glaub and Don Heffington, all presenting a peaceful easy feeling. With not so much emotional baggage in tow, the 51 year-old singer seemed content that buoyant tunes such as `Before The Light Is Gone’, `Saint Bernard’ (his hangdog expression always on show), `Sun’s Coming Out’ and `Getaway Car’ might never get the airplay they deserve; the only cover came courtesy of Dave Kirby & Glenn Martin’s `Is Anybody Going To San Antone’.
Two years down the line, THE LAST RIDER (2017) {*7} was another consistent effort to warm the cockles of Ron’s fans. Notable in the fact that the album, his 13th, was co-produced by steadfast sticksman Don Kerr (of RHEOSTATICS), timeless tunes and themes of love and loneliness were almost too syrupy to stick. Then again, under the right mood setting, or in that special relaxing place by the fireside, `Worried Song’, `Breakfast Ethereal’, `It Won’t Last For Long’, `Evergreen’, and the hope-inducing `Dead End Dream’, were just the ticket to escape the troubles of the day.
There was no doubt that fringe artists like SEXSMITH would suffer the impact of the coronavirus lockdown, and with concerts postponed for, hopefully/presumably, another time, the download-only album, HERMITAGE (2020) {*7}, was nevertheless enlightening and resolute. Coincidentally and enterprisingly, Ron and production partner Don Kerr (his drummer) had just set up shop in quiet Stratford, Ontario, in order to ease back in to a sense of autumnal introspection. There’d been too much made of his unmistakable affectations to The KINKS and/or NICK LOWE, and although there was indeed no getting away from that fact on bird-chirping opener, `Spring Of The Following Year’, `Chateau Mermaid’, the solemn `Whatever Shape Your Heart Is In’ and the up-beat, Lo And Behold’, SEXSMITH performed without a care in the world – well almost.
© MC Strong 2000-2004/MCS/BG // rev-up MCS Dec2013-Apr2020

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