Record Review - 4 June 10 2004

Despite his suggestive surname, Sexsmith has earned a modest following as the most sensitive Canadian singer/songwriter this side of Rufus Wainwright. This is the guy, after all, who nearly got invited to join Lilith Fair and even pictured himself on one album cover as the ultimate sissy icon, the silk-knicker-wearing Blue Boy from the Gainsborough painting.

Retriever, his seventh album, won’t exactly dispel that image, but it shifts the spotlight from sensitive to songwriter. Where before Sexsmith’s high, quavering voice and sad-little-boy delivery may have needed the weight of an album behind them before they worked their hooks into the listener, here the songs grab hold of you from the get-go. Where earlier albums may have suffered from a sameness that, likely for some, bordered on monotony, the upbeat melodies and lush, catchy arrangements on Retriever render each song distinctive and memorable.

Dare I say I think I heard a single — maybe even more than one? How about the driving “From Now On,” which I’d like to interpret as a subtle call to arms against the lies of a certain presidential administration. Or “Wishing Wells,” an upbeat directive to toss out our rose-colored glasses and face harsh realities? Maybe “Whatever It Takes,” a ’70s-style R&B crooner, complete with an Al Green-ish string section and a wicked chord change. The most haunting cut, “For the Driver,” reinforces Sexsmith’s sensitive side as he movingly empathizes with a motorist who accidentally mows down a little kid.

OK, so it’s not going to convert many Hatebreed fans, but Retriever has a way of working its way under your skin that no tattoo needle can beat.

Ron Sexsmith plays the Variety Playhouse Mon., June 14, at 8 p.m. $17.50.