"Time Being," Ron Sexsmith
Quiet cafes that let you linger for hours over a single cup; tucked away secondhand shops that always yield a tiny treasure or two; perfectly stocked used-book stores. Those sorts of things are always better off as secrets, little pleasures you keep to yourself. Ron Sexsmith albums are like that too. Even though the 42-year-old singer-songwriter has been showered with praise from luminaries like Elvis Costello, Elton John and Paul McCartney, and his music has been covered by k.d. lang and Rod Stewart, Sexsmith's warmly melodic songs have never found an audience equal to their vast charm. There's something about Sexsmith's music that almost demands it remain largely unknown; his work is so lovingly crafted that, like a note between friends, it's hard to imagine it tugging quite so tenderly on the heartstrings if it were spilling forth from every car window and popping up on every iPod display screen. So it's much to my relief that with "Time Being," Sexsmith has once again made an album full of tender melodies and lovely, humane ruminations -- the kind of stuff that tends not to attract a crowd.
Sexsmith has always been a reflective songwriter, but "Time Being" finds him looking over his shoulder even more than usual. "Hands of Time," "I Think We're Lost" and "Cold Hearted Wind" all weave cautionary lyrics into delicately layered folk-pop, where sighing slide guitars or gently loping gospel piano chords take turns adding emphasis to a line before receding back into the gently percolating arrangements. Special mention must also be made of Sexsmith's singing: He's able to transcend his limited range and slightly generic regular-white-guy vocal tone via some remarkable nuance (listen to the Salon exclusive download "And Now the Day Is Done"). On "Snow Angel," for example, the way Sexsmith adds an upward lilt to the end of certain lines helps him nudge a sad song toward contentment.
"Time Being" may be a soft and wistful album, but it never feels precious. "Jazz at the Bookstore" points out how strange it is that jazz and blues have been culturally relegated to background music for the consumption of "coffees that we can't pronounce." The inclusion of some slightly psychedelic keyboard stabs and echoing whistles lends "Grim Trucker's" tale of pigs being led off to the slaughterhouse the sinister cast of a Brother's Grimm fairy tale. Even when Sexsmith verges perilously close to platitudes, as on "Never Give Up," the plainspoken depth and quotidian profundity of the rest of the material affords him some slack -- his clichés don't feel like clichés. But that's our little secret.
Pick: "Snow Angel"
"Never Hear the End of It," Sloan
For better or worse, Sloan has excellent taste in influences. The early part of the long-running band's career was built on their obvious affection for the Beatles -- circa "Abbey Road" -- and the power pop of the early Who. Sloan wore those influences well, as mid-'90s records like "Twice Removed" and "One Chord to Another" were mini-marvels of tough guitars, melodic ingenuity and off-kilter arrangements. The second half of the band's career saw them step out of the '60s for a dalliance with the fuzzed-out big-rock moves of '70s bands like AC/DC and Badfinger. The change was like seeing a nerd pick a fight with a jock -- the effort was worth more than the result. Their new two-disc set, "Never Hear the End of It," finds the band trying to marry the two sides of their musical personality. The record is a success, but a relative one; two discs just means there's twice as much stuff as usual that sounds exactly like other more famous bands. But you shouldn't be expecting originality from a Sloan record anyway; you should be expecting hummable tunes and clever guitars. Tracks like "Listen to the Radio," with its woozy vintage synths, and the cocksure "Ill Placed Trust" show the band at a late-career peak and should satisfy your jones for guitar-oriented '70s pop-rock in those instances when actual '70s pop-rock won't do.
Pick: "Listen to the Radio"
"Sing You Sinners," Erin McKeown
Sporting a faux-scuffed cover, Erin McKeown's "Sing You Sinners" is explicit in all the ways Sloan is indirect. Paying homage to American pop music from the '30s, '40s and '50s, McKeown applies her impressive guitar chops and irrepressibly enthusiastic vocals to lesser-known tunes from the songbooks of Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen and others. Some tightly swinging ensemble playing and McKeown's good-natured brio make sure the album, which, in more reverent hands, could have sounded like a trip to the museum, instead sounds like a night on the town.
Pick: "Rhode Island Is Famous for You"