Martin Sexton is the best singer in America. No one can match his range and his diverse and informed musicality. No one can match the intensity of his live performances. Simply put, no one else has Sexton's chops.
Atlantic Records recognized the breadth and depth of his talent when they signed him to their label in 1998. He released two recordings under the Atlantic name, but they could not rein in his wide-ranging talent, and failed to package him as the product he can never be. Sexton went on to form his own label, Kitchen Table Records, where he has been ever since.
It is hard to explain what Sexton does and how he does it. The voice seems to come from a deep place, a soulful place that knows no bounds. He draws from all of the sounds he grew up with in a large, musical household in Syracuse, New York. He can scat like the best jazz singers, belt out the blues and perform the sweaty rock histrionics of better-known performers. His should be a household name, and among his legion of devoted fans, it is. I can tell you this: there is no one like him.
Sugarcoating is Sexton's newest release. The themes here range from the political to the very personal. What ties them together is the passion that he brings to the music—the wonder of his voice, the expert finger picking on guitar, the stories that unfold in song.
Found is the first cut on Sugarcoating, and it sets the tone and cements the sound for all the tunes that follow. It concerns a man surrounded by the technology of the modern world—all of those things that serve to disconnect us from one another. What he is seeking are those things that bring us together in our common humanity rather than the material things that set us apart. Sexton injects his incomparable falsetto into the chorus with a purity of sound that is both moving and mesmerizing. Wants Out is Sexton with a simple guitar and piano arrangement pouring out the feelings of a broken heart—lovely even in its deep sadness.
The bouncy, upbeat, danceable jazz groove of Boom Sh-Boom celebrates the joy of finding the one who makes your heart beat a little bit faster. The instrumental bridge gives the remarkable group of studio musicians assembled a chance to shine, with Sexton's voice improvising the sound of one of the instruments in the band. It is pure fun.
The title track, Sugarcoating, is a condemnation of the media's slick coverage of the tragedy of September 11th and its aftermath, as well as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. What is wonderfully ironic is that the song is wrapped around an old-fashioned country melody complete with what Sexton calls his "cowboy trio" of backing vocalists.
The lyrics tell the story:
Jet planes flying into buildings
And I wonder why nobody wonders why
Stick Around is Sexton's homage to the Beatles, with its Beatle-like supporting vocal harmonies, reference to Abbey Road, and use of John and Paul's melodic toolkit. I particularly like Tom West on keyboards and the way Sexton pulls out all kinds of vocal riffs on the melody.
The Long Haul showcases the genius of guitar god Duke Levine and the backing vocals of Sexton's sister Colleen Sexton, an artist in her own right. "Shane" features the acoustic sound and sweet vocals of Sexton's earlier recordings, as it imagines the world his infant son faces ahead. Easy on the Eyes has Sexton taking on vocal pyrotechnics as he channels the sound of a trumpet.
The recording closes with the lilting lullaby of a song, Just to be Alive. It is a throwback, a tip of the hat of the great popular song of the late twentieth century, all with that special Sexton take. Just as you are being lulled into a relaxed state by the melody, the music picks up and culminates in Levine's guitar, a sitar sound that explodes and then fades away.
Sugarcoating is a stunning success, a tour de force by the incomparable Martin Sexton. Whether he takes on the issues that play on the world stage, or focuses on the landscape of the heart, it is with every fiber of his being. The risks he takes with his voice, and the places he goes with his lyrics always leave his audience wanting more.
And where he goes, we will follow. Sugarcoating sets the bar for the best music of the year.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2010, Peterborough Folk Music Society and Roberta B. Schwartz.
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