CD Review of Seeds by Martin Sexton

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starstarstarstarno star Label: Kitchen Table
Released: 2007
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At the intersection of Al Green and Mel Blanc lies the music of pop/rock/folk/R&B/whatever singer Martin Sexton, and if you'd never imagined such a union was possible, you're in good company; despite selling enough records and two-drink minimums to keep himself on the road for the better part of a solid decade, Sexton remains uncharted territory for most listeners. This isn't for lack of effort: Atlantic attempted to make a go of it with Sexton, releasing 1998's The American and 2000's Wonder Bar, but the label ultimately (and understandably) didn't know how in the hell to market him, and since leaving the corporate fold, he's been mostly touring – a live album and a holiday collection notwithstanding, Seeds is Sexton's first release in seven years.

Fortunately, it's been worth the wait. Listening to Martin Sexton can be a little like staring at one of those horrible computer-generated paintings that were so popular in mall art shops during the '90s – it might take you a few minutes to figure out what you're supposed to be looking for, but once you do, it's hard to lose sight of it – but Seeds does an admirable job of distilling Sexton's quirks and strengths into a delightfully skewed, eminently enjoyable package. On previous recordings, he often fell victim to a puppy-like restless energy; listening to him dash non-stop between genres, a person could be torn between wanting to give him a treat or swat him with a newspaper. Here, however, the shedding (and the long gestation period) seems to have paid off – in a career full of unique and intricate arrangements, Seeds boasts some of Sexton's most impressive, and in the service of a very finely shaded set of songs.

If you've never listened to a Martin Sexton album, you're probably still wondering about that Mel Blanc remark, and fear not – it's got nothing to do with any resemblance between his songs and Looney Tunes, but rather Sexton's uncanny ability to twist and shape his voice across octaves and instruments; he's well-known as a gifted horn mimic, and on this album, his vocal credits include “mouth as cymbals,” “vocal horns,” “electric voice,” and “backing Leslie vocals.” (Not to mention various guitars, keyboards, percussion, “spring water jug,” and “minnow bucket.”) Such a talent could easily become an annoyingly showy affectation in the wrong hands, but with Sexton – and particularly on Seeds – it only adds to the album's homey charm; the whole thing sounds like it was recorded at his kitchen table on a warm weekend afternoon.

Some songs, and some characters, are sharper than others, but there really isn't a bum track in the bunch – apart from being the high point of Sexton's recording career thus far, it's one of the most thoroughly entertaining collections of so-called “roots music” to surface all year, or even longer, really; albums blessed with this much open-hearted, open-throated wonder simply don't come along very often. On the tongue-in-cheek “Failure,” Sexton sings about having his knuckles rapped by nuns for singing Stevie Wonder on the playground, musing, “When I sang those songs the penguins said / Keep down the noise / And you're never gonna make it as a choir boy / Thank god for failure.” Give Seeds a few spins and see if you don't agree.

~Jeff Giles