Sharps & flats

Singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith whispers sweetly.

Published May 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Ron Sexsmith is a Canadian singer-songwriter celebrated for his winsome melodies, melancholy lyrics and a vulnerable vocal vibrato that recalls the royally depressed (and terribly gifted) 1960s songwriter Tim Hardin. It's a noisy world in which to be a sensitive guy, which is why it was a good idea for Sexsmith and producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake (Suzanne Vega, Los Lobos) to beef up the production of the singer's third album, "Whereabouts." Where the intimate arrangements on its predecessor, "Other Songs" (1997), fairly clung to the contours of Sexsmith's acoustic guitar, instruments of a wider palette fill the more ambitious charts of "Whereabouts."

"Riverbed" would have drowned in lyrical clichis without such elaboration. But just as patience begins to wear thin at the second verse, a clarinet offers a flavorful accompaniment, followed at the chorus by the addition of strings and a sweetly plunking banjo. In this gently unfolding manner, a simple folk tune becomes a memorable pop song. Sexsmith also has a gift for melodic phrasing. On "Beautiful View," the ear candy isn't the layers of strings, but the way his rhythmic enunciation breathes life into an otherwise pedestrian pledge: "There's nothing I would rather do than sit and talk with you."

Sexsmith and fellow cult hero Elliott Smith share an affection for the mid-tempo pop style of the Beatles (Sexsmith can also recall Ray Davies of the Kinks). But where Smith limits himself by recording most of his basic tracks as a one-man-band, Sexsmith plays guitar in a terrific quartet that includes Froom on keyboards and Pete Thomas (of Elvis Costello's Attractions) on the drums. If only these crackerjack players had inspired Sexsmith to pump up the record: As is, it suffers from too many mid-tempo grooves. Still, from the light Memphis soul of "Right About Now" to the oddly whimsical "Idiot Boy," Sexsmith's "Whereabouts" shows compelling musical growth from a songwriter who has already established himself as a master of the game.

By John Milward

John Milward is a New York freelance writer.

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