Heard one of my fave Ron Sexsmith songs (above) on the radio while stuck in a traffic jam. Praise the programming gods. It saved my sanity, and led me back to respinning his latest, quite wonderful disc, Long Player, Late Bloomer (Thirty Tigers). Another strong record, especially stuff like “Heavenly” and “No Help At All.” Then all this Ron reminded me of dropping a blindfold test on the singer a few years ago. He was a peach. And of course he’s a guy who has plenty to say about songs. Here ’tis.
Lots of songwriters document bittersweet moments – life has its share of disappointments. But for the last decade, Ron Sexsmith has consistently brought an unusual eloquence to a string of melancholy moods. The forty-something Canadian has a knack for burrowing into the poignancy of romantic miscalculation. On on the new Time Being, he considers the onset of middle age. With gems like “Snow Angel,” “Jazz at the Bookstore,” and “Ship of Fools,” it’s one of his most inviting discs. Sexsmith recently stopped by to play our guessing game – we played him songs and he tried to figure out who the artist was. He listened intently to ’em and offered some thoughtful comments.
XTC, “Love on a Farmboy’s Wages” fromMummer (1983)
I always loved XTC. I had Skylarking and a few of their singles. I like anyone who can write a decent melody and Andy certainly wrote his fair share. Sometimes the records would take a few listens to get into; they got more and more listens to get into; they got more and more complex as they went along, and I admire that. They were so immediate – “Life Begins at the Hop” and those early songs. I was suspicious of some punk bands, but not them. I have to thank Andy Partridge for turning me on to a great artist I had never heard of, Judee Sill – she died in the ’70s. She blew my mind. I always thought that Andy Partridge would be into the same guys that I’m into, the Beatles and the Kinks. But Judee Sill is different.
Beth Orton, “So Much More,” Central Reservation (1999)
That’s pretty. Sounds old and new at the same time. Is it Beth Orton? Love her. I always thought she’d be a good person to do a duet with. I remember when I first heard her voice, it was “Wow, Dusty Springfield and Sandy Denny rolled together.” That track had atmosphere. I think records should be like movies – they have a vibe, a sound, a sequence. It should be cohesive. I’ve always tried to put myself in the hands of producers who have an idea of how to make a mood. Didn’t she work with the guy from Everything But the Girl, and the Chemical Brothers, too? Well…I’m two for two. What’s next?
Gordon Lightfoot, “Approaching Lavender,” Sit Down Young Stranger (1970)
That’s my hero. For me, Gord is like Johnny Cash is for a lot of people – larger than life. He wrote so many great songs. I recently played a show at [Toronto’s] Massey Hall, which I call the “House of Gord” because he’s played there every year since the ’60s. It was always my dream to play there – not as an opener, but a [headliner]. I finally did it in April, and just before I’m about to go on, I hear this huge ovation in the crowd – Gordon Lightfoot [had] just walked in. I was already nervous, but I became double-nervous. He came backstage afterwards, and it meant a lot to me that he came to root for me. My cure for homesickness on the road is having two or three Gord CDs with me. Gord’s giving you something you can’t get anywhere else, and when you hear him, he takes you to a certain zone. He’s always been slightly square, which is another thing I like about him.
Tom T. Hall, “Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken),” Where Have All the Seasons Gone (1971)
Sounds like Tom T. Hall or something. It is! I got to see him one night at the Bluebird Café in Nashville. Oh my god. He opened with “I Love.” I had the single as a kid, and though it’s a corny song, it’s a great song. He played it and there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. “I love winners when they cry/losers when they try…” Really beautiful. Then he played this new song “Ships Go Out,” and it was so inspiring. When I was asked to do a Tom T. Hall [song on a] tribute disc, I chose that song. I wanted to show that he still had it as an older songwriter. He should do an album with Rick Rubin. Tom T’s one of the greats – a storyteller. On my new disc I have a few attempts at narrative stuff. “Snow Angel” is my attempt to write “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe. “Grim Trucker” is a story song too. I don’t have the discipline to write a novel, but I’d like to.
Duke Ellington, “Dusk,” The Blanton-Webster Band (1939)
That’s a piano that I recognize…this isn’t Bing [Crosby] is it? Hoagy Carmichael? No. Oh, it’s Duke Ellington, you say? I was always into vocal jazz, Bing and Ella, so I’m often stumped on the instrumental stuff. You’re playing it because of my “Jazz at the Bookstore” song. Often times you go in those places and it’s an education – you hear this amazing stuff.
Something seismic went down when Duke Ellington met up with Charles Mingus and Max Roach in 1962. The music on Money Jungle (Blue Note) truly quakes. Michelle Mercer used the term “combative” in her NPR review of the reissue a decade ago, and one blogger dude deems the famed troika “the OG power trio of the ’60s.” Long story short, there’s lots of pushing and shoving that takes place in the music (listen to the bassist bully his mates with the repeated lunges on the title tune), but it adds up to some crackling jazz. The iconic pianist, who never let a finger hit a key without poise being part of the equation, is at his most physical here. And of course Max Roach drops bomb after bomb after bomb, exploding the action on several levels. Money Jungle gets the blood racing.
But a question arises: Which of the album’s tunes is the most impactful? The hard-driving “Wig Wise”? The lush “Fleurette Africaine”? The mercurial “Switch Blade”? It’s Ellington’s 112 birthday today. Take the next 48 hours to consider your response and post it up in “Comments.” And feel free to forward to a fellow Money Jungle freak, too.
Sure, every right-thinking human likes to get slapped around by “Cotton Tail,” “Harlem Air Shaft,” and “Braggin’ In Brass.” But one of my prized possessions is a mixed tape that unites a scad of Duke Ellington’s softer scenarios. Our hero had a penetrating way with setting a somber mood, as well as myriad approaches towards getting the job done. I particularly like the wordless vocal style applied to jewels such as “On A Turquoise Cloud” and “Transblucency.” Here are 15 ballads that should transport you to “other planes of there,” as Ellington fan Sun Ra once put it. It’s all in celebration of the maestro’s 112th birthday on April 29.
The experimentalist tinge was in full effect when Ellington connected with Charles Mingus and Max Roach for this trio session. Spare and seductive, it brims with the drummer’s tapping and the bassist’s inspired noodles.