It's tempting to call this a make-or-break record for Ron Sexsmith, though he was never in danger of being vaulted into the celebrity stratosphere. For all his boyish good looks and critical acclaim, he'll likely remain an underappreciated talent. This relative anonymity has allowed him to tinker with sounds without ever changing his basic style. Cheers to the creative process, but Sexsmith's recent sonic schizophrenia has begun to wear a bit thin.
For Cobblestone Runway, Sexsmith enlisted Swedish producer Martin Terefe to dress up his charming acoustic tunes with drum machines and chamber-pop finery, and therein lies the album's main flaw. Perhaps Sexsmith's past records, produced by Tchad Blake and, more recently, Steve Earle, failed to fully capture his vision. Perhaps Sweden really is the new center of the musical universe. Either way, the result is a mostly awkward and cluttered record on which good songs are polished to a blinding sheen. The album's sorest thumb is "Dragonfly on Bay Street," a bouncy number that sounds as if Ron pressed the "French disco funk" button on his Casiotone. It's also rock-solid evidence that vocoders should be outlawed until Beck finds a new girlfriend and goes back to making dirty funk records. Overall, the real shame is that behind the electro-grooves and faux-funk, Cobblestone contains some of Sexsmith's most accomplished lyrics and sweetest vocals. This isn't a wholly unlistenable or unlikable record by any stretch -- Sexsmith's talent is evident no matter what outfit he wears. Let's just hope he shops around a little more before settling on his next sound.