Ron Sexsmith

Cobblestone Runway

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A singer/songwriter whose strong suit is his warmth and humanity wouldn't seem like a likely prospect to be teamed up with a bunch of electronic keyboards, drum machines, and other bits of hi-tech hardware, but after leaving behind Mitchell Froom's tape-loop fantasias for Steve Earle's rootsy and straightforward production on Blue Boy, Ron Sexsmith takes another sonic left-turn on his fifth album, Cobblestone Runway (his sixth if you include his first self-released cassette, Grand Opera Lane). Cobblestone Runway finds Sexsmith embracing electronics with surprising enthusiasm, but he has the good sense not to drown himself in them; while "These Days" features a prominent drum loop and echoey white-noise keyboard patches, the chilly undertow is offset by some soulful backing vocals and the (slightly) rumpled sincerity of Sexsmith's voice and acoustic guitar, and the spacey synth lines on "Disappearing Act" find their complement in a gloriously low-tech electric guitar. Much like Mark Eitzel on The Invisible Man, Ron Sexsmith has found a way to breathe a very human sense of emotional openness into his spare electronic backings ("Heart's Desire" even winds up with a bit of noisy but high-groove jamming), and Cobblestone Runway serves his songs as well as any album he's ever made. Of course, it helps that (as usual) Sexsmith has written a dozen winners here, from the lament for the sad state of love on "These Days" to the realist's bid for optimism on "Gold In Them Hills," and the purposefully childlike "God Loves Everyone" is one of the truly effective musical pleas for human tolerance to emerge post-September 11. On his last few releases, Ron Sexsmith 'the recording artist' appears to be finally catching up with Ron Sexsmith 'the gifted songwriter,' and if Cobblestone Runway's surfaces may initially puzzle a few fans, the heart, soul, and hard-won wisdom of these performances confirm that he's finally mastered the recording studio, and it ranks with his best-realized work to date. (The disc also features a second version of "Gold In Them Hills" as a bonus, featuring a duet vocal with Chris Martin of Coldplay.)

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