Martin Sexton has a gift of a voice, one-note-and-you-know-it’s-him pipes. This is a smashing plus for a pop artist or singer-songwriter, and combining this asset with great songs is a one-two punch. On Sexton’s best work—1996’s Black Sheep and 2000’s Wonder Bar, for example—these strengths made for lights-out American music.
Seeds came out in 2007, and it was an improvement. Sexton had become a canny producer of his own music, drawing out the county and gospel tinges in his voice with wonderful arrangements combining organ, acoustic guitars, whistling, you name it. With his own inimitable voice soaring and croaking, wheezing and flying, Seeds made it clear that Sexton’s failure to find a mass audience made little difference to his art. The guy was a celebration of rootsy soul.
Sugarcoating is more of the same but somehow less. There has been no deterioration in Sexton’s canny singing or in the wonderful sound of this band. This is a record of real ear glory. “Long Haul” is a relaxed country lope with bent-note guitar, high-and-lonely harmony vocals, and unhurried drums. “Easy on the Eyes” is a jaunty hopper halfway between Fats Waller and Jimmy Buffett. “Always Got Away” comes off like the kind of stirring piano ballad you don’t hear much anymore, swirled in choir harmonies.
For all its great sounds, however, Sugarcoating seems flat and sometimes facile. A great recording but maybe not a terrific record. The title track is a perfect example. Sexton sets up a skipping Kentucky groove topped by a low-key middle register vocal, then he backs that vocal with a purposely square male chorus such that the whole package sounds like a parody of a traditional country song. The lyrics, however, are about 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq—fiascos that we couldn’t avert because of the “sweet, sweet, sweet sugar-coatin’!” and failure of somebody to “tell it like it is”. The song is sonically clever, but the lyrics are too easy by half: Martin Sexton doesn’t suggest the truth that would have saved us all those lives, he just blames the media and politicians. Is the production supposed to be ironic? Alas, the song itself can’t sustain the conceit.
“Friends Again” also sounds great, the kind of syncopated acoustic groove song that Sexton has been knocking over the fences for two decades. But its sentiment, that the narrator can’t tell someone how to live his life even though “my love for you is oceans wide”, is more John Mayer than Martin Sexton. “Boom Sh-Boom” is cutesy-pie funk that contains the phrase “the boom sh-boom, the doo-wah ditty, the mocha-choke-a-latte and the nitty-gritty”. It’s fun and all, turning the title into a double-entendre, ‘f course, but it’s a powder puff by the second listen. Sexton’s scat-along-with-the-guitar-solo closing has the same feeling: snappy, clever, but window dressing. The song is a C+ even if the arrangement is an A.
Not that these too-easy songs don’t grab you pretty often. “Livin’ the Life” is a lyric celebration of quitting your corporate job, an easy sentiment if ever there was one, but it has a dandy clavinet groove and a syncopated chorus of distinction. The opener, “Found”, uses Sexton’s falsetto in small doses but perfectly, alternating between a folk-funk verse and a lovely, lifting chorus. And “Shane”, one of the least flashy songs, draws you with its simplicity.
Sugarcoating, alas, falls victim to its own warning. It could stand to “tell it like it is” just a bit more often. It is also fair to say that Sexton’s successful balancing of sound and meaning has been so strong over his career that he has simply set the bar too high. If you don’t know Sexton, then Sugarcoating will hep you to a remarkable artist, a guy with both the voice and the pop craftsmanship to transfix. And, I would suggest, it will point you backward to a run of albums that are even better than the latest.
It’s equally true that this disc is merely one calling card for a performer, a talent best seen on the road in a club, clutching his acoustic guitar and rearing back his throat to sing for you, live. Sugarcoated is not his best work, but it is still a pleasure on the ear, a dollop of aural enjoyment.