Music CD Spotlight

Beat's still lonely

In 1985, when a 17-year-old Charlie Sexton released his debut album, Pictures For Pleasure, fans of the Austin blues-guitar prodigy were universally dismayed. The album found Sexton forsaking his blues roots for shallow art-songs designed to present him as an American David Bowie.

With Cruel and Gentle Things, Sexton's first solo album in a decade, he has again resisted any temptation to make a guitar-showcase album, once again putting the emphasis on his songwriting. Sexton's new songs, however, are decidedly more rustic, reflecting the influence of his recent history as Bob Dylan's de-facto bandleader and Lucinda Williams' producer. Tracks such as the opening "Gospel" and the nostalgic " Dillingham Lane" are simple and conversational, plain-spoken folky confessionals that suit Sexton's low-key persona.

Without exception, these songs are expertly performed (with Sexton handling many of the instruments) and crafted with great sincerity. Unfortunately, they are also rather dull.

Sexton has proven that he's a charismatic, inspired sideman, but his own material rarely makes the intangible leap from pleasant to compelling. When he recalls his childhood in "Dillingham Lane," you know the sentiments are meaningful to him, but the best he can manage is "We both grew older/the winds blew colder." His dry, husky voice often recalls Jon Bon Jovi, meaning it conveys a generic brand of rock sullenness.

Cruel and gentle things

Charlie Sexton

(Back Porch Records)

Downplaying his greatest gift, his brilliance as a guitarist, Sexton settles for economical fills that complement his songs. It's an admirable display of restraint, but it does this collection no favors. It's telling that the most ear-catching solo on a guitar virtuoso's album is Carter Albrecht's music-hall piano break on "Once In A While."

A few tracks do manage to lift their head above the crowd, notably "Once In A While," with a sad lyric that undercuts the jaunty swing of the music, and "Gospel," with its haunting, whispered existentialism. For the most part, however, Sexton sounds like a talented role player misplaced in the spotlight.

- Gilbert Garcia


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