For the Record

A change of tempo

Three singer-songwriters release breakthrough albums

May 31 1999
For the Record

A change of tempo

Three singer-songwriters release breakthrough albums

May 31 1999

A change of tempo

For the Record

Three singer-songwriters release breakthrough albums

Whereabouts

Ron Sexsmith

(Interscope/Universal)

Ron Sexsmith’s understated vocals and simple lyrics mask what is actually a formidable talent. To be sure, Sexsmith has his share of fans—Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney among them. But a commercial breakthrough has so far eluded the babyfaced native of St. Catharines, Ont. That may change with Whereabouts, which has a robust quality that makes the singer-songwriter seem not simply sensitive but even at times eccentric. Take Beautiful View. With its clanging bells, groaning organ and lush strings, the love song boasts the cinematic sweep of a Randy Newman number. And One Grey Morning, about pessimists, has all the giddiness of a drunken Dixieland band. Meanwhile, the joyous Feel for You may be the closest Sexsmith has come to recording a radio-friendly pop tune. His sad, small songs still dominate, but Whereabouts is a grander, happier album. For Ron Sexsmith boosters, that is music to the ears.

Chroma

Laurel MacDonald

(Wicklow/BMG)

Although it contains Gaelic songs and features such traditional instruments as uilleann pipes, Chroma is no garden-variety Celtic album. The Halifax-born MacDonald uses a much broader musical palette to create an adventurous, cross-cultural sound. A Wing and a Prayer juxtaposes ancient childrens verse with high-pitched, pulsating voices inspired by modern American composer Steve Reich, while Agnus Dei mixes West African percussion with text from the Roman Catholic mass. Sometimes, all this experimentation leaves the listener out in the cold. But MacDonald has a powerful, entrancing voice, and often succeeds in casting her spell, especially on

the exquisite, windswept Seek Ye the Lambs. With a number of her songs remixed into dance versions, Laurel MacDonald is redefining Canadian Celtic music.

Johnstown

Oh Susanna

(Stella/Square Dog Records/Outside)

Everything about Canadian singer-songwriter Suzie Ungerleider, alias Oh Susanna, is steeped in history, from her Stephen Foster-borrowed stage name to the periodpiece songs on her astonishing sophomore release. Only one—the sinister title track, about a prostitute’s murder—directly mentions the tragic 1889 flood in Johnstown, Pa. But many of the other folk and country songs on Johnstown deal with death and devastation. In Old Kate, the narrator watches her lover “wash away,” while in The Bridge a woman plunges to a watery grave. Yet the album never sinks into a sea of melancholy. The sensuous Alabaster is an uplifting love song and the yearning Home Soon is brimming with hope. Ultimately, Oh Susanna’s passionate vocals and evocative, backward-glancing songs make her one of new music’s brightest lights.

Nicholas Jennings