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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Solo Sexsmith in vintage form

The gifted Canadian singer-songwriter dips into his rich catalog unadorned at Largo.

July 26, 2008|Mikael Wood | Special to The Times
  • Ron Sexmith
Ron Sexmith (Richard Beland )

They don't serve drinks yet at Largo's lovely new space at the Coronet Theatre, but Thursday night Ron Sexsmith had his small but attentive audience there covered. This Canadian singer-songwriter makes impeccably crafted folk-pop records that warm the insides like a top-shelf whiskey, and at Largo, Sexsmith included in his 80-minute set several tunes that described the pleasures to be found from fermentation.

In "One Last Round" he narrated a trip "into town" to "drink our bottles down." "Thinking Out Loud" suggested to a lover that they pour out their worries "like this bottle of wine." In "Brandy Alexander," a song Sexsmith co-wrote with Leslie Feist (who included a version of it on her 2007 disc, "The Reminder"), he compared a woman to the cocktail he singled out as his favorite.

In the studio, Sexsmith -- who shares a sort of rumpled-cherub look with the actor John C. Reilly -- often wraps his songs in complicated arrangements long on strings and brass and keyboards. Several tracks on his new album, "Exit Strategy of the Soul," even approximate the lush sweep of mid-'70s Philadelphia R&B.

Yet Thursday, Sexsmith performed solo, which required stripping the material down to its essential elements: a guitar part, a lyric and a vocal melody. That unadorned presentation can reveal the weaknesses in a songwriter's stuff -- think of any open-mike night you've had the misfortune to endure -- but it can also emphasize the elegance of its architecture.

The latter was the case at Largo, where Sexsmith balanced cuts from "Exit Strategy" with selections from his deep discography. ("I figured that would maximize my chances of entertaining you," he said.) Sexsmith has never really had a hit record in the United States -- he referred to his 2006 album "Time Being" as "a well-kept secret" -- but everything he played rang with familiarity; he's a dedicated student of the Lennon-McCartney school of songwriting, which insists that formal experimentation is only as valuable as the memorable tune it rode in on.

In "Cheap Hotel," Sexsmith sang tenderly about a woman escaping with her children from an abusive husband. "Jazz at the Bookstore" described white yuppies "sipping coffees that [they] can't pronounce." He introduced "Reason for Our Love," a gorgeous ballad with a tricky, Burt Bacharach-worthy melody, by explaining that he'd written it for the late Bing Crosby to sing -- a dream he said he had a better of chance of fulfilling than hearing his fellow Canadian Michael Buble do it.

For an encore, Sexsmith came back onstage wearing a different shirt and jacket than he'd worn during his main set. "That's showbiz," he said with a wry chuckle, but he'd already offered up all the fireworks he needed.

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