Ron Sexsmith is a songwriter's songwriter. Elvis Costello and John Hiatt revere him. Steve Earle dropped a line offering to produce him (he did) and Coldplay's Chris Martin rang up to ask if he could sing a duet (he did). Sexsmith is so roundly respected that Daniel Lanois didn't play on his new CD -- he shot the cover photos, and who can blame him for just wanting to get his name in the credits? "Retriever," Sexsmith's seventh CD, is among his finest work, harking back to the brilliant craftsmanship of 1997's "Other Songs," with one major difference. Mitchell Froom's fizzy, loop-laced production has been replaced by Martin Terefe's more straightforward approach -- a lush, humble assortment of pianos and guitars, glockenspiel, and harmonies that allow Sexsmith's winsome melodies, disarming words, and tumbledown tenor to rise like cream to the surface of these songs. And there isn't a weak link in the bunch. Sexsmith indulges his feel for effervescent, '60s-style pop on upbeat tracks like "Not About to Lose," "From Now On," "Wishing Wells," and "Happiness," slips in a soulful tribute to Bill Withers ("Whatever It Takes"), and burrows into balladry with a languorous elegance and uncommon viewpoint that's become his signature. "I feel for the driver in the aftermath/ Of a child who chased a ball across his path/ For the ones involved/ And the most unloved I feel/ I feel for the driver," is typical of Sexsmith's novel lyricism. That a thrashing rhythm section arrives in a muted haze for a few heady bars at the end of the song is just one example of this album's many priceless moments.
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