Saturday, May 21, 2011

"No Help At All" / Ron Sexsmith

The book's done!  (Well, sorta . . . mostly  .. . ) And the kitchen renovation is over!! (Well, sorta . . . mostly . . . )  At any rate, done enough for me to get back to listening to music, and writing about music, and all that good stuff.

And in the meantime, look who put out a new album?  It's the ever-soulful Ron Sexsmith, one of my favorite Canadian troubadors.   Ron's on that short list of musicians* whose new CD I'll buy -- nay, even pre-order -- without previewing a single track.  After all, I already know I'm gonna like it. And for me, child of the vinyl era that I am, I truly love the whole drill of getting a new album: unwrapping the plastic, sliding out the disc, putting in on my player, and listening to it for the first time, straight through, giving it the full attention it deserves. The disc's a little smaller these days, the plastic wrap a little more baffling (why do they insist on that extra strip of tape across the top of the jewel case?), and I might get it in the mail instead of at a store, but it's still a highly satisfying old-school routine.

There's something kinda old-school about Ron Sexsmith too -- that's part of the charm. Melody, well-tuned vocals, tasteful arrangements, just a little bit of swing to the rhythm -- it's very accessible music, and I mean that in a good way.  (Since when did "accessible" become a diss?)  It's true that he's gone for some more, shall we say, pillowy production values here. But much as I love the old acoustic Ron, I love the new Ron too, even if he does get a little groovy with flutes and strings and other studio enhancements.

So here's the track:

The thing is, as sweet as this song sounds -- and given the choirboy beauty of Ron's voice, everything he does is bound to sound sweet -- there are little barbs and bites all along the way, to keep saccharinity at bay. The shadow of the depressive folkie slips in every now and then.  I met Ron once after a show and I don't think the earnestness is an act, but he's no fool either.  He's seen that life sucks, and he's going to share that too.

Still, it's not his style to whine or rant. This song is surprisingly cheerful and upbeat; it's startling when you begin to realize he's talking about a crack-up of sorts. "I've been burning the candle at both ends...I've been learning all my lessons the hard way / And nursing the exit wounds from a near-fatal mistake ... I can't see the light anymore . . . You've got to go it alone . . ." Yikes, Ron!

What he uses instead is word play -- and you know how I love word play. It's often Ron's avenue into a song, which is no doubt why he numbers Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello among his fans. Ron loves to twist a cliche, and he's having a field day with it here, in lines like "I've been .. . . running myself more ragged than Raggedy Ann" or "I couldn't read the writing on the wall / Until I hit that wall" or "You say it was time for a wake-up call / I never did get that call" or "If I'm shooting myself in the foot I'll crawl / I'm willing to take that fall"  Notice how he emphasizes those phrases, with syncopation, added beats, or rising pitch. It's like he's caressing those catch-phrases, turning them inside out. 

It makes you realize how ways our culture has devised to say "I've messed up my life."  By dwelling on the catch-phrases, of course, Ron distances himself -- and us -- from the pain. Even that hopeless-seeming refrain, "And there was no [beat] no help at all," sounds almost blithe the way Ron sings it.  This is no howl of pain, not like -- for example -- Joe Jackson's harrowing "So Low (Solo)," which is pretty much my gold standard in the Howl of Pain category.

But that's okay.  Even though Ron's singing in the present tense (all right, grammar buffs, the present perfect continuous tense), I get the feeling that he's already moved on.  He's made a mess of things, and he knows he will in the future, and yeah, there was no deus ex machina, no Big Sky Guy, reaching down to smooth his path for him.  So what?  He can live with that.  As the rest of the album explores, he's not in it for the quick glory or the easy out -- he's a late bloomer, he's a long-player. (If you want more word play, just check out that title track!) 

Personally, this is a song that lifts my spirits in a rough patch. Slogging through research for this book, or eating takeout off of paper plates for four dusty months, it helped to have Ron Sexsmith's upbeat perspective around. He's definitely a keeper.

* Guess who the others are?