Ron Sexsmith
Ron Sexsmith

Life is amazing in its endless capacity for renewal. Just when you've written off a tired old tradition -- in this case, the sensitive singer/songwriter guy -- as having finally been shamed into postmodern exile, it reappears in a form as pure as if you were hearing the first singer ever, singing the first-ever song. Thank an unassuming 31-year-old Canadian named Ron Sexsmith. Though he's not the only one to pull off the earnest strummer routine of late, the charms of Sexsmith's debut are among the genre's most potent.

It's a thin line that separates the self-important songwriter from the scribe who charms us with his insight and grace. Sexsmith is among the latter, simply because he writes great songs. His melodies connect instantly, but don't reveal their full power right away. The music is similarly understated: "There's a Rhythm" and "Secret Heart" drift solely on a clean and quiet electric guitar; "Lebanon, Tennessee" and "Wastin' Time" add light backup with bass, organ or the simplest drum kit. And Sexsmith's voice is gorgeous: warm and still, dry and quivering, trembling and mournful; technically limited, perhaps, but infinite in implication.

Ultimately, though, the quality that separates Sexsmith from lesser singer/songwriters is elusive. Maybe it's his music's facility and accessibility that makes it so inviting. Or perhaps it's a projected honesty in Sexsmith's words and voice and face that convinces us his music is extremely gratifying. Whatever it is, it's one of life's great wonders.

-- Roni Sarig

Joe Henderson
Double Rainbow: The Music of Antonio Carlos Jobim
Verve Records

You have to admire the way Joe Henderson is handling the success that's come his way in recent years. He's using his moment in the spotlight not only to challenge himself musically, but also to pay tribute to the masters who went before him. Double Rainbow, like Henderson's earlier tributes to Billy Strayhorn and Miles Davis, finds the tenor saxophonist exploring the territory of a singular composer, in this case Antonio Carlos Jobim, who died late last year.

This is not easy ground for Henderson. He admits that most of these tunes were unknown to him before this session. What's more, Jobim's lilting, Brazilian melodies and rhythms don't play to Henderson's strong suit, that smash-mouthed, New York post-bop style. The sax man opts for a gently compromised balance on the disc's opening, five-song suite, in which Henderson blows rounded, thoughtfully nuanced lines around a gently prodding rhythm section composed of first-rate Brazilian musicians. Still, you can't help but feel Henderson is a caged bird in this setting, content to suppress his natural instincts while surrounded by inflexible rhythmic bars.

Henderson, the spirited bird, soars more intensely on the second suite, a seven-song cycle featuring the sublime talents of Herbie Hancock, Christian McBride and Jack DeJohnette. In various configurations, these players explore the dangerous blind alleys suggested to them by Jobim's music. They do this with great sensitivity to the composer's themes. Maybe it's my own cultural jazz bias at play here, but I found the American interpretations far more challenging and fascinating than those of the Brazilians.

-- Tim Carman

Various Arists
Dark Clouds Rollin' : Excello Swamp Blues Classics

AVI's reissues of the classic Excello recordings just keep tumbling out of the vaults. The careers of Lazy Lester, Slim Harpo, Lightnin' Slim, Lonesome Sundown and Silas Hogan are -- in the great blues tradition -- doing much better than they ever did when the performers were alive. In addition to putting out comprehensive CDs of the various South Louisiana swamp-boogie artists who recorded at J.D. Miller's little studio in Crowley, AVI has also put out a series of samplers that provide an outstanding overview of what was one of the most influential labels of all time.

When Miller met up with Excello president Ernest Young in 1955, neither man could have known that the deal they worked out for nationwide distribution of the various juke-joint shouters Miller was recording would inspire a British blues-rock revolution that would sweep the world. But the 45s that Excello pressed quickly achieved cult status among British teens such as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and John Mayall. Dark Clouds Rollin' illuminates the influence Excello had on British blues-rock by focusing on rocking shuffles such as Lazy Lester's "I'm a Lover Not a Fighter" -- which is all the evidence needed to prove that rock, blues and country are overlapping descriptions of the same damn thing -- and Slim Harpo's innuendo-laden "I'm a King Bee." These are songs that shaped the direction music has followed over the last three decades; it's good to see recognition given where recognition is due. Like many archival reissues, at 29 tunes stretching over 70 minutes Dark Clouds Rollin' is one of the better educational and entertainment bargains around.

-- Jim Sherman

The Hurra
Grand Royal/Capitol

Just about everything the Beastie Boys touch turns to gold -- if not in sales, then at least in quality. The music, the label, the clothes, the videos, the movies, the magazine -- it's all good. That's why fans have waited in anticipation for the debut solo album from Hurricane, the Boys' longtime DJ. The thought was that if Hurricane shares any of the Boys' wit and creative energy, he's destined for greatness.

Well, the good news is that The Hurra, featuring the voices and instruments of the Beasties on tracks by B-Boy producer Mario Caldato Jr., hits sonic peaks and delves into the depths of funk. The bad news is that Hurricane, as lead rapper, is probably the least interesting thing on the record.

Grooves such as "Comin' O-F-F," with its organ/piano line and whistle, and "Pass Me the Gun," with a reggae bass line and severe grand piano, make The Hurra as musically rich and polished as recent Beastie sides. But the lyrics rarely spark (except perhaps when they're out for fun, as on the Beastie-esque "Pat Your Foot" and "Elbow Room").

As The Hurra proves, good hip-hop and good rap are not necessarily the same thing. The art of making music isn't contingent on the quality of a rapper's rhymes. Thank goodness for that -- at least for the sake of Hurricane's solo career. -- Roni Sarig

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Tim Carman
Roni Sarig
Jim Sherman