With his moon pie of a face and mop of curly hair, Ron Sexsmith is usually described as “cherubic.” There’s nothing angular in his features; like the remodeled Volkswagen Beetle, Sexsmith’s face is all soft curves and arches. That softness extends to the Canadian singer-songwriter’s performance: With his plummy melodies and Bavarian cream of a voice, Sexsmith luxuriates in his songs’ pervasive sense of melancholy. Sexsmith often approaches Paul McCartney and Ray Davies in his ability to write memorable, emotionally complex pop tunes.
His new Steve Earle-produced album, “Blue Boy” (SpinArt/Cooking Vinyl), is a welcome push toward an edgier, ’60s pop-rock sound. But, at the Troubadour, that edge was blunted by Sexsmith’s limitations as a singer. Neither as acerbic as Elvis Costello nor as campily flamboyant as Rufus Wainwright, Sexsmith can’t, with his McCartneyesque croon, reach the depths of emotions his songs plumb. “Foolproof” is a beautifully constructed torch ballad that could easily have been sung by Frank Sinatra or Etta James, but Sexsmith’s rendition only hints at the lyrics’ vulnerability and irony. His version of the Kinks’ obscurity “Oklahoma USA” misses the original’s poignancy.
Although Sexsmith is charming and self-effacing onstage and given admirable support by a three-piece band, the hourlong set is like listening to an evening of songwriter’s demos.
But what songs! Newer material such as “Thirsty Love” has the soulful country swell of Dusty Springfield’s best; “Cheap Hotel” gives new life to the hoary cheater’s ballad; and older songs like “The Idiot Boy” and “Lebanon, Tennessee” overflowed with melodic and lyrical invention.