This week’s record hunting finds me dusting off some of my favourite records by Canadian singer-songwriters.
Ron Sexsmith – The Last Rider
(Warner Music Canada, 2017)
This is the first record that Ron Sexsmith has self-produced (with his friend and colleague, Don Kerr), and the first to feature his touring band. The stellar band includes Don Kerr (drums), Jason Mercer (bass), Dave Matheson (keyboards) and Kevin Lacroix (guitar). I had the pleasure of speaking with Ron about this album.
The Last Rider was recorded at the Bathouse (the Tragically Hip’s studio, near Kingston) in just eight days. There is a compelling bass synth that doubles the bass line on the song Upward Dog. With a filter that sounds like a wah, the bass line percolates and meanders through a funky intro before settling into the song. That bass synth also appears on Evergreen and Breakfast Ethereal.
The song Shoreline opens with a beautiful acoustic guitar intro that blooms into some rich string parts that are reminiscent of some of Sexsmith’s earlier recordings with Mitchell Froom. Ron told me that his vision for Shoreline was a sonic mix of the Drifters and Ben E King’s Stand By Me.
Every Last One sounds like a Kinks song, and Ron admits that the Kinks are “part of my DNA.”
West Gwillimbury is a song titled after a small town north of Newmarket. After repeatedly seeing the road sign, Ron said that he thought it was a great name and he imagined it might be a heavenly little place that was frozen in time.
The theme of time also permeates a song called Man At the Gate (1913). Sexsmith had purchased a postcard with an old photo of the gates at Toronto’s Trinity-Bellwoods Park. There is a figure standing in the gates, but he’s almost a shadow. The song is about the connected nature of humanity and the potential to inspire future generations.
Other highlights include It Won’t Last For Long, Radio, Dreams Are Bigger and Worried Song.
Those looking for something special should begin mining Ron’s youtube channel (Rawnboy) where he has recorded over 400 covers of songs by artists like the Beatles, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Roy Orbison, Abba, Cat Stevens, Springsteen, Lightfoot, Bacharach, and the Rolling Stones. Most are recorded solo, in his kitchen. He has also recorded solo acoustic renditions of each of his albums.
For Robertson’s solo debut, he hooked up with producer Daniel Lanois. In a historic twist of fate, Lanois was also working with U2 at that time (on their Joshua Tree record) and he was producing Peter Gabriel’s landmark, So.
The members of U2 performed on two tracks – Sweet Fire of Love and Testimony (later the title of Robertson’s autobiography). Bono sings a duet with Robertson on Sweet Fire and a glorious trio of guitars intertwine, played by Edge, Lanois and Robertson.
Peter Gabriel sings and plays keyboard on the song Fallen Angel, which is dedicated to deceased Band member, Richard Manuel. Gabriel’s core rhythm section of Manu Katche (drums) and Tony Levin (bass) play on many tracks on this album.
The result of these collaborations gives the album a shifting, morphing sound that is part U2, part Peter Gabriel, and part Robertson. All of which is filtered through the sonic lens of Daniel Lanois.
The most recognizable songs on the album are Broken Arrow and Somewhere Down the Crazy River. The former is gorgeous (and features Garth Hudson on organ), but the latter is a victim of CanCon over-saturation. These two singles may be familiar to the average listener, but serious music lovers will be entranced by the rest of the album.
Jerry Leger – Nonsense & Heartache
(Latent Recordings, 2017)
This release from Jerry Leger is a double album, with one disc featuring more bluesy tracks (Nonsense) and the other more acoustic (Heartache). Starting with the Nonsense disc, Forged Check is a gritty blues shuffle that belongs in a Chicago watering hole. Baby’s Got a Rare Gun is a slow swing with a driving bass line and responsive guitar phrases.
The Big Smoke Blues features Angie Hilts on vocals, and she also appears on a couple of tracks on the Heartache disc. Other highlights include Wedding Dress, Coat on the Rack and For Hire.
The Heartache disc has some poignant moments, including the piano ballad, Lucy And Little Billy the Kid, Take the Ashes and Run, and the heartbreaking He’s the Lonely One Now.
Pawn Shop Piano is a stunning duet with Angie Hilts that closes the album with rich harmony and a hint of Johnny & June. Other standout tracks include Things Are Changing Round Here and Another Dead Radio Star.