A sterling and overdue stop in the studio for the great singer and performer
Martin Sexton is one of those performers who somebody else tells you about. You get dragged to a show at some local place, and on the way your friend tells you about how her friend dragged her to a show. You hear things like, "The guy is amazing."
You get to the show . . . and he is.
Sexton works in the musty center of American roots music -- a putative folkie with an acoustic guitar on the surface, but really a blues man and a gospel force with a raspy-beautiful voice that moves from a mellow bari to a from-the-gods falsetto. Born in Syracuse but steeled in the Boston music scene, Sexton released his first album, Black Sheep in 1996. After two major label artistic successes, The American and Wonder Bar, Sexton started his own label to release the 2002 live album Live Wide Open. Through it all, Sexton has been touring like a madman, focusing his energy on a single audience every night, turning out the stories of his heart with maximum force.
Seeds is Sexton's first studio record in seven years. On the one hand, it is true to Sexton's tight road show -- he's backed just by organ, bass, drums and vocals. On the other hand, the tracks are wildly varied, littered with Sexton's own banjo, whistles, percussion, jug bass, and keyboards. Generally, it's a joyous affair -- a celebration of the great breadth of US music as it is found in churches, streets, neighborhoods, and alleyways. It's rock music the way it used to be 30 or more years ago: eclectic and somewhat ragged, like a closet full of great old costumes that all fit. Sexton wears them all with practiced ease and passion.
On the opener, "Happy", Sexton pours out joy, celebrating domestic bliss as "the first day of summer vacation . . . Happy like the choir on Sunday morning". And it is a Sunday morning groove, with church organ and gospel-styled backing vocals. "Wild Angels" is even more church, with a full-throated gospel choir on the chorus: "We are wild angels / Sent down from our childhood dreams / And we're just trying to get ourselves back to the source of the stream". Toward the end of the album, Sexton reprises this song, making the gospel feel the touchstone of Seeds.
Sexton is equally successful as an easygoing roots rocker. "Goin' to the Country" shuffles along on an acoustic guitar groove and Keller Williams' guest dobro spot, then the feel switches up and the tune gathers a touch of old-timey swing. In the alternative, Sexton masters an urban feel while covering Billy Preston's "Will It Go Round in Circles", embellishing the basic bass and drum groove with hip harmonized scatting that he runs through a Leslie cabinet. Or he can be a spare bluesman -- on "There Go I", it's just guitar and vocals over a slick minor 12-bar pattern, with Sexton lifting things with a quick moment of falsetto.
The effect -- clearly intended by Sexton -- is that of flipping the dial on a cheap radio in an earlier era of broadcast. In fact, he includes the sound of a flipping AM radio before "Right Where You Belong", a mid-tempo piano ballad that yearns for an earlier time and for a season fondly passed by. "Marry Me" rides on a little banjo pattern and contains a gorgeous chord change and melodic twist that simply won't leave your head. The easy shifts between genres and feelings make the disc, perhaps, more like a carefully arranged mix-tape. But the point remains: it is an intensely pleasing variety of great music. And Sexton's voice, the one constant, is so flexible and pliant that the style-shifts are given a logic that few singers could bring.
Sexton fans, by now, have stopped wondering when the "real" radio is going to catch on to their man. While John Mayer and Maroon 5 score hit after hit, a guy like Sexton is left to release his own music and make his own luck. But that is probably as it ought to be. While Sexton's pipes would kill on a pop single, too much of the rest of his art is all about the rough edges of the American musical experience. Seeds, for all its excellence, aims at an adult, somewhat nostalgic audience, an audience that feels the pulse of rock as it emerges from honky-tonks, sanctuaries, country porches, and river beds. Martin Sexton knows what he is about, and on this record he delivers it, triumphantly.
Seeds, then, is well-named -- an album about origins, but one that grows as you listen. Let it flower.