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Old 09-26-2011, 10:22 AM   #297 (permalink)
Trollheart
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Sometimes stars are born, sometimes made, but mostly you only discover them when they burst onto the scene. Occasionally, an artiste you've been following makes it big, and you can grin and say “told you so!” --- a friend of mine was well into Michael Bolton years before he made the big time. But it's rare that you get advance warning that a new star is due to shine, and that you had better look out for them.

But such is how the nascent career of one Charlie Sexton was foreshadowed, and with good reason. Part of Bob Dylan's band from 1999 to 2002, and having toured with the Rolling Stones, learned guitar from some of the greats in the field, especially Joe Ely and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, Sexton was marked for greatness. He was a pretty phenomenal guitar player, could sing like a pro from an early age, and had cut his teeth and paid his dues where it mattered, on the road. He would have big names to recommend his work and to call upon if needed, and associations with such heavyweights could only add clout to his grab for the big time.

But amazingly, that big break never arrived. Which is not to say that Sexton did not make it as a musician. In fact, he has had a fairly stellar career, working with even more giant talents like Ron Wood, Jimmy Barnes, Don Henley, Keith Richards, Clapton and Bowie, and has produced albums for the likes of Lucinda Williams, Double Trouble (Stevie Ray's band), Edie Brickell and Shawn Colvin. He has been hailed as a major talent, and is in great demand as a session musician, even playing the guitar on Justin Timberlake's version of “Hallelujah”.

But despite all that, the glittering solo career and superstardom that was foretold in his stars has not come to pass, and it's even odder when you consider his debut album, his first proper introduction to the world as a solo artiste.

Pictures for pleasure --- Charlie Sexton --- 1985 (MCA)


Even from the photo on the sleeve you could guess this guy was going to make it big. Hell, you'd have put your house on it! The broody, James Dean-esque teenager staring out of the picture, his hair in a quiff, his eyes dark and mysterious, rather a lot of heavy makeup on his face and a leather jackt pulled casually around his shoulders would perhaps put you in mind of one of those X-Factor/American Idol wannabe “stars” who think they're a rocker. But you can't ignore or deny the image: this is a guy with the face record companies and producers kill for, the sort of face that can sell records on its own.

The difference here is that Sexton can rock, and does on his debut album. “Pictures for pleasure”. He has the kind of voice Cowell would kill for, and the sort of stage presence only gained through years on the road with bands who are the masters of their craft. And he's not just a pretty face either: he plays guitar, bass, piano and keyboards, sings and indeed writes or has a hand in writing some of the songs on the album. The full package, indeed.

So where did it all go wrong? Why was this album not a huge, chart-topping smash that launched Charlie Sexton on the road to superstar nirvana? I really can't answer that. The first single from the album is excellent, so much so that it pushed me to buy the album, and that's damn good too. Yet his next album seems to have sold very badly, and he only released two more solo albums after that, in total four, six and ten years between the last. Obviously, as detailed above he was very busy, either playing with other bands or producing albums, and he probably hadn't time to record much of his own solo work, but after the single I heard nothing more from him, and I had so much expected to.

The album opens with “Impressed”, a good hard rocker in the vein of John Cougar Mellencamp, and you can already hear the talent of this guy, not only on vocals but on guitar too. It's a good opener, with a great hook, and would have made a good single, but it's the next track that was the single, and deservedly so. “Beat's so lonely” is a fantastic slice of fast power-rock, melodic to the max, with a great lyrical theme about how it's lonely at the top and how things look different from there. Charlie cuts loose with his first proper guitar solo here, and it's a doozy!

This is also one of the songs he helps write, with producer Keith Forsey, and it's a real slice of Americana. Charlie's often relaxed, southern Texas drawl puts me in mind of the late Stevie Ray: the man's influence has certainly rubbed off! “Restless” is another track which Charlie co-writes, this time it's a more electronica/funk type with lots of fiddly keyboard and some very bright piano, still retaining the rock shell the album is built upon.

Perhaps surprisingly, given his pedigree, Sexton eschews the idea of calling in famous names to play on his album, perhaps afraid that such “guests” might misrepresent his music to the masses, or perhaps he just wanted to make it on his own, after years of playing in the shadow of titans, standing, as it were, on the shoulders of giants. The only recognisable name on his crewlist is that of guitarist and producer extraordinaire, Richie Zito.

A strange choice for a cover version next, the 1933 semi-classic “Hold me”, which Charlie gives the full eighties rock treatment, updating the old love song for 1985. Another great little solo in this song, and some truly exceptional playing from Charlie, and the song is instantly his. It seems everything this boy puts his hand to, no matter how obscure or old, or seemingly inappropriate, turns to pure rock gold.

The title track is next, and again Sexton has a hand in its penning. “Pictures for pleasure” is a boppy, keyboard-led slice of eighties AOR, with a certain Cars vibe about it, probably the most laid-back track on the album so far, although nowhere near a ballad. It should also be remembered that at the time of this album's release, Charlie Sexton was a mere slip of a lad at only sixteen. Displaying a maturity way beyond his tender years, he then launches into “Tell me”, one of two tracks solely written by him. A real hard rocker, it combines the best of his keys work with heavy, snarly guitar, conjuring up visions of Survivor after a particularly hard day at the studio meeting up with Ric Ocasek and heading off for a drinking session with John Parr. Another super solo marks this track out as special, and it's on to his second attempt at writing a song on his own.

“Attractions” is a far different beast to its predecessor, with somewhat confused melody and a darker, more ominous vocal with nevertheless great backing vocals, and more guitar-driven than the previous “Tell me”. I find the singing a little muddy on this track --- I would say possibly due to production, but then Keith Forsey is acknowledged as a great producer, so I'd have to say it's down to Charlie's singing style, at least on this track. I have to admit, I'm not as fond of this as the previous, in fact, this goes down as my least favourite track so far.

“You don't belong here” gets things back on track after the somewhat unexpected “curve ball” (don't you just hate those American phrases?) thrown by “Attractions”, with another good rocker with tons of hooks and some great guitar work from Charlie. Sort of mid-paced, it's not as frenetic as the likes of “Restless” or “Impressed”, but it holds its own, with a strange sort of Pretenders/Bryan Adams guitar riff running through it. Closer “Space” is written by those stalwarts of the rock song, Holly Knight and Mike Chapman, and it shows.

The song reeks of commerciality, but I really feel it does not suit either Sexton's voice or his style, and as such it seems incongruous here. Perhaps the decision to take this song was a bad move: virtually everything up to that had been good, but as a closer this just feels like it was written for someone like Go West or Eurythmics. Just doesn't sit well here, and finishes the album in the wrong vein for me. I feel perhaps a decent ballad might not only have closed the album better, but might also have given Sexton a chance at a real hit single, but for whatever reason there are no ballads on this album at all.

Having heard “Beat's so lonely”, I bought this album fully expecting it to be loaded with filler, and was more than surprised to find it really is a good listen. Having read about Charlie Sexton in the musical press of the day, I totally expected this album to be the springboard to launch him to worldwide fame and success. I'm amazed that it didn't happen, and though “Pictures for pleasure” is not a classic album, and does suffer from some deficiencies, remembering that it's the debut effort from a guy sixteen years old, this is good stuff! As mentioned, Charlie did experience a lot of success, with other bands and other avenues, and he'll always make a living as a session muso. He's in demand, and will most likely continue to be, and certainly he'll never starve.

But superstardom, it would appear, for reasons that remain unclear to me, seems to have eluded him. On the strength of this album, it's one of the mysteries of the rock universe, and one that I fear will not be solved any time soon, if ever. Steve Lukather, Danny Kortchmar, Mike Landau, are all names we know well. They're accomplished and famous session musicians (Lukather not so much now, having joined Toto and made a name for himself), and do well, but would we go to see any of them if they were in concert? Charlie Sexton deserved to become a household name, but sadly, and unaccountably, the likely response you'll get when mentioning his name now, outside of musical circles, is “Charlie who?”

TRACKLISTING

1. Impressed
2. Beat's so lonely
3. Restless
4. Hold me
5. Pictures for pleasure
6. Tell me
7. Attractions
8. You don't belong here
9. Space
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