Category: Ron Sexsmith

Ron Sexsmith Covers:
NRBQ, Leonard Cohen, Harry Nilsson, Tim Hardin, Sesame Street & more!

May 12th, 2010 — 02:22 pm

As folk critic Scott Alarik notes in his seminal 2004 essay compilation Deep Community: Adventures in the Modern Folk Underground, though the original American folk revival presented a plentiful mix of both female and male voices and songwriters, a quick “where are they now” look at the last few generations of folk artists reveals numerous women who went on to folkpop stardom – take, for example, eighties Fast Folk movement graduates Suzanne Vega and Shawn Colvin – with few male counterparts. In their stead, we find a set of male voices from that era who, while well-respected, barely managed to sell enough records to live off the residuals.

Meanwhile, thanks to the recent resurgence of delicate, often lo-fi indiefolk, and the move towards inclusion of the alt-country and true-blue radio-ready singer-songwriter in the AAA radio mix, there are plenty of new male voices in our midst, from Josh Ritter to Jeffrey Foucault. It’s wonderful to find the newest forms of folk so flush with gender parity, at least on the surface.

But dig a bit deeper, and the fact remains: Foucault gets more cred than commerce; Ritter’s success, which is stronger in Ireland than at home, makes him an exception, not the norm. Other than Josh Rouse‘s newest, and a free (and therefore unprofitable) sampler from new CLD favorite Peter Bradley Adams, the majority of bestsellers in the Folk category over at are an equal mix of older reissues from Neil Young and Paul Simon, and new albums from both rising-star females and categorical mainstays. In many subgenres, it seems, there is still a tendency towards a “lost generation” of popular male solo voices.

The issue of singer-songwriter gender disparity in the commercial realm is complex, and it surely has something to do with the fact that many male singer-songwriters have decent but unique voices, which have less mainstream appeal than strong, beautiful female vocal tones. But it also seems to be grounded, at least in part, in differing standards of where both artists and listeners can and should draw the genre line for singer-songwriter production dynamics.

Although hardcore folk listeners often focus on lyrics and tune – something which balances out regardless of voice and gender – the masses, who like a bit of pop production behind their studio releases, often go for Dar Williams over John Gorka, Sheryl Crow over John Hiatt, Aimee Mann over Michael Penn, and Ani DiFranco over Amos Lee, despite comparable instrumentation in studio releases from these artists.

Similarly, a close scrutiny of the diversity of various music festival schedules reveals that, while we continue to accept female voices as part of the folk rock and popfolk canon, and allow such artists to move fluidly among listening audiences, those male artists who tend towards folk rock, folk pop, or alt-country production but still define themselves within the singer-songwriter realm – A.C. Newman and Ryan Adams among them; Elliott Smith, Tim Hardin and Nick Drake before that – tend to be marginalized as “indie”, and thus end up much less accepted as a natural part of both “folk” and “pop” lineups, even as a song or two of theirs may garner some modicum of critical attention from a broader base of listenership in one or the other category.

Conveniently, a recent fascination with Elvis Costello’s musician-to-musician Sundance Channel program Spectacle: Elvis Costello With…, prompted by an utterly heartbreaking Jesse Winchester performance that made Neko Case cry, led me through the archives to Ron Sexsmith, who Costello touts as having “resurrected” Everyday I Write the Book for him. In turn, “discovering” Sexsmith, whose sales have never been as strong as some of his female counterparts despite strong reviews, reminds me of the cultural dynamic which makes it harder for musicians like him to find commercial success, both as “folk” artists and as a general case.

I find myself just as guilty as anyone in too-easily marginalizing male Pop Folk artists; though we heavily feature the songbooks of male artists here, a look back at our Covers features reveals a preference for female voices much like that of the general public. Today, then, as a kick-off for a long-overdue corrective trend, we turn to Ron Sexsmith as an interpreter of song, hopefully just the first of many performance-centered posts featuring male artists whose financial success seem to eternally lag behind their well-deserved reputation.

Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith has been around for quite a while, though he didn’t manage to find enough support to start recording as a solo artist until he was almost thirty. Still, the man who started out covering the songs of Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and others at local dives in his native Ontario has produced ten major-label albums since his 1995 self-titled Interscope/Warner debut, and won praise from the very same artists he once claimed as progenitors.

Defined as a Pop Folk artist on Wikipedia, Sexsmith’s output has indeed flowed back and forth between delicate, sensitive balladry and more band-driven numbers throughout his career, and you’ll hear both below. In poprocker mode, Sexsmith tends towards a pretty traditional three-piece guitar-driven sound, much like that of Lowe and Costello; in ballad mode, his voice comes further forward, and the combination of guitar and voice move closer towards a particularly familiar, wistful, self-depreciating form of folk, echoing the balanced sound of Elliott Smith or Nick Drake.

But both ends of his spectrum feature personal, prescient songcraft. And though Sexsmith tends to stick to his own compositions on his albums, most of which feature nary a co-write or cover, when choosing to interpret the songs of others, he tends towards the confessional, finding the secret emotional heart of pop songs as easily as he casts a shadow of doubt on the honesty of their narrative voices.

Thanks to his regular inclusion on tribute albums – itself a mark of the respect the singer-songwriter enjoys from his fellow artists and producers – I’d heard some songs by Ron Sexsmith through coverage, most notably tribute album title cuts Crayon Angel and This Is Where I Belong, which you’ll find featured prominently below. But I’m still working my way through the back catalog, and if you care to join me, there’s some great stuff here. And that recognizably weary, oddly angelic tenor, with its deceptively lazy rasp, slippery delivery, and sliding pitch, is a perfect match for heartbreak and triumph, celebration and caution alike.

Tribute and Compilation Album Cuts:

Ron Sexsmith Album Cuts:

According to Ron Sexsmith’s website, where you can and should order off his back catalog, there’s a new album in the works, still waiting for mixing and a late 2010 release. No word yet on whether it yaws more towards the rock or the folk, but either way, I’m looking forward to hearing more originals from the sad-faced singer-songwriter.

In the meanwhile, as it turns out, Sexsmith is well-covered himself. Today’s Bonus Tracks compile several favorite interpretations of his better-known songs – most of which, perhaps unsurprisingly, were recorded by women. Odds are, even if you haven’t heard much from Sexsmith himself, you’ll already know at least one; the Feist, especially, has made the rounds in the last few years.

And finally, as an afterthought: it’s not technically a true-blue cover – Costello and Sexsmith trade off on the lyrics here – but since I mentioned it above, here’s that gloriously mellow folk reinvention of Everyday I Write The Book, recorded on Spectacle last December, which led me to today’s feature in the first place.

1,186 comments » | Ron Sexsmith

Covered In Folk: The Beatles, Part 2 (Signature Songs and Solo Projects)

December 10th, 2007 — 02:39 am

John Lennon died 27 years ago, on December 8th, 1980; I was seven, and the event was meaningless. But since then, like every one of you, I’ve absorbed the Beatles canon — which means, among other things, recognizing the loss of musical potential and statesmanship that marks Lennon’s passing.

Mostly, it’s the statesmanship I recognize. Though each Beatle — both the still-going and the dearly departed — went on to a fruitful solo career after the band broke up, for me, the Beatles as a cultural phenomenon are as much more a sum of their parts as they are musically. I mean, I know the music blogosphere is full of powerful Lennon tributes tonight, but by definition music blogs promote that which you haven’t really heard yet. Ask the average non-audiophile to sing a Beatles song, and the odds are they know dozens; ask them to sing a post-Beatles song, and they might be able to mangle their way through the first verse and chorus of a radio hit or or two.

Of course we know Beatles songs; it’s not like we have much choice. Over three centuries past their break-up, it remains a cultural rite of passage to grow familiar with the works of the Beatles. But their solo work has credibility on a smaller scale. As a member of the first post-Beatles generation, I never really took to the work of Paul or Ringo, with or without bands and mates, and my sense of the genius of Harrison and Lennon was mostly a peripheral awareness that there was more there than I was seeing from a distance, that some day I might like to listen to their work a little more closely.

In many cases, it was covers that brought me to to appreciate the continued later-in-life talents of the Beatles boys for what they were: individual talents, still powerful without each other. Great songwriters live forever, in the coverworld. That there are so many wonderful folk covers of the songs of the Beatles boys, both pre- and post-breakup, says what it needs to about their individual talents.

Today, in memory and in honor, over twenty coversongs from the fringes of the folkworld, our largest post ever here at Cover Lay Down. Including stellar folkversions of songs from the solo careers of Paul, George, and John, and some signature Beatles songs generally acknowledged as primarily a product of a single Beatlesboy. Plus a second set of select covers sung by a few of the boys themselves, as a little bonus.

The Songs of John Lennon

  • Alison Crowe, Imagine (orig. Lennon)
  • Keb’ Mo’, Imagine (orig. Lennon)
  • Rosie Thomas, Love (orig. Lennon)
  • Damien Rice, Happy Christmas (War is Over) (orig. Lennon)
  • Harry Nilsson, You Can’t Do That (Lennon; orig Beatles)
  • The Subways, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away (Lennon; orig. Beatles)

    The Songs of George Harrison

  • Girlyman, My Sweet Lord (orig. Harrison)
  • Tanya Donelly, Long, Long, Long (Harrison; orig. Beatles)
  • The Bacon Brothers, If I Needed Someone (Harrison, orig. Beatles)
  • Jake Shimabukuro, While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Harrison; orig. Beatles)
  • Nils Okland, While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Harrison, orig. Beatles)

    The Songs of Paul McCartney

  • Ron Sexsmith, Listen To What The Man Said (orig. Wings)
  • Jem, Maybe I’m Amazed (orig. McCartney)
  • Dust Poets, Veronica (orig. Costello/ McCartney)
  • Mark Erelli, I’ll Follow The Sun (McCartney, orig. beatles)

    The Songs of Ringo Starr

  • George Harrison, It Don’t Come Easy (orig. Starr, poss. w/ Harrison)
  • Sufjan Stevens, What Goes On (Lennon/McCartney/Starr, orig. Beatles)

    I’ve thought long and hard about how to direct you to purchase and support today’s coverartists, but ultimately, I decided that today is about George, Ringo, Paul, and most especially John. If, after you hear these incredible covers, you want more information about the recent and universally awesome albums of the artists covering these songs, ask me about them in the comments, or head on over to good old google, type in an artist’s full names in quotation marks, and hit “I feel lucky” to buy direct from any artist’s website.

    Today’s Bonus coversongs: The Beatles Boys Cover…

  • George Harrison, Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (orig. Arlen/Koehler)
  • Ringo Starr and Stevie Nicks, Lay Down Your Arms (orig. Harry Nilsson)
  • Harry Nilsson w/ John Lennon, Many Rivers to Cross (orig. Jimmy Cliff)

  • previously: Covered In Folk: The Beatles, Part 1.
  • 517 comments » | Allison Crowe, Covered in Folk, Damien Rice, Dust Poets, Elvis Costello, George Harrison, Girlyman, Harry Nilsson, Jem, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ron Sexsmith, Tanya Donelly, The Beatles

    Lucy Kaplansky Covers: Just About Everybody (Nick Lowe, Sting, Roxy Music, Steve Earle, Buddy Miller, Dylan…)

    October 14th, 2007 — 10:14 pm

    You almost never got to hear of Lucy Kaplansky: An 18 year old member of the early 80s new folk movement, she made it as far as plans for a recording venture with Shawn Colvin, only to change her mind at the last moment. For the next decade, Kaplansky continued to do light session work, most notably as a backup singer on early Suzanne Vega albums, but spent most of her time plying her newly minted PhD in Psychology as a therapist in New York. It was a hard loss for the folk community: her voice had been a sweet standout in the crowd even then, as evidenced by Fast Folk recordings from the era.

    Thankfully, in the mid 90s Lucy came back to the folk fold. Since then, though she still supposedly sees patients, she’s produced six absolutely incredible albums, chock-full of masterful songwriting. It’s tempting to see her therapist’s eye in her lyrical tendency towards storysongs of family, the lifestruggle of generational difference and the passage of time, the closing of distances metaphoric and real. But regardless of the source, there’s nothing like her ability to find the right pace for a song, the right tone for a line, the right note of etherial melody for a story.

    Kaplansky remains in high demand as a backup vocalist for fellow folkies on the road or in the studios; her pure voice and New York accent can be heard on almost every Colvin, Shindell, Nancy Griffith, and John Gorka album. Her ear is incredible — I’ve seen her on stage with a good half dozen performers, and she seems to be arranging her harmonies on the spot, making good songs great with a subtle yet powerful touch.

    But though in concert she tends to focus on her own stunning songwriting, Dr. Kaplansky’s cheerful delight at singing and arranging the tunes of others translates to her own recordings, too: her albums tend to come in at about one-third covers, and her taste is impeccable. Over the last thirteen years, she has come to be known as much for her sterling interpretations of the songs of others as she is for her own material.

    In fact, Lucy Kaplansky is such a prolific and powerful cover artist, I had real trouble narrowing down the choices, so today we’re offering one cover from each of her six major albums, presented in chronological order:

    Lucy Kaplansky covers…

    You can hear more Lucy tracks at her website, but every single Lucy Kaplansky album from 1994 release The Tide to this year’s Over The Hills belongs in your collection, and you can buy them all direct from her label Red House Records. So do it. Period.

    Today’s bonus coversongs:

    545 comments » | Bob Dylan, Buddy Miller, cry cry cry, Louvin Brothers, Lucy Kaplansky, Nick Lowe, Olabelle Reed, Ron Sexsmith, Roxy Music, Steve Earle, The Police, Wayfaring Strangers