Martin Sexton, ‘Mixtape of the Open Road’ – Album Review
At one point during 'Mixtape of the Open Road,' Martin Sexton sings about "selling pencils in a ball-point world," and from a certain point of view, you could hear that line as a tongue-in-cheek reference to his own recording career: Eight albums into a critically acclaimed and largely independent run that stretches back to 1992's 'In the Journey,' Sexton's music has never come anywhere near the level of world playlist domination that it deserves, and at this point, it seems safe to say it never will.
Always cheerfully unconcerned with trends, Sexton's records occupy musical territory that time forgot -- drenched in homespun harmony and peppered with throwback touches like doo-wop backing vocals and soft pedal steel, bordered with a ruefully cockeyed sense of humor and webbed with his gorgeously elastic vocals. And though it certainly stands out on its own in his catalog, 'Mixtape' also represents an evolution of sorts, playfully showcasing the breadth of his capabilities without sacrificing musical depth.
That 'Mixtape' is so abundantly eclectic is kind of ironic, given that Sexton deliberately set out to put together an album with a cohesive concept when he started writing this set of songs. But the muse does what she wants, and it's to his credit that instead of trying to wrangle them into something they weren't, Sexton embraced their differences, crafting a colorful patchwork that runs the gamut from breezy acoustic-anchored cuts like the domestic bliss anthem 'You (My Mind Is Woo)' to the stomp 'n' slide guitar singalong of 'Remember That Ride.' He's said he ultimately tried to put together an album that took the listener on a musical journey, the same way the best mixtapes did during the cassette era, and in terms of pure ebb and flow, 'Open Road' delivers.
But as varied as Sexton's 'Mixtape' can be in terms of instrumentation and tempo, these songs are ultimately all of a piece -- largely because no matter what he does, his voice is always his biggest and best instrument, continually exemplified throughout these 12 tracks by the way it soars, sails, and stacks its way through the arrangements. It's Sexton's voice that's the unifying ingredient here, and it lends the record an irresistible radiating warmth.
A pencil in a ball-point world? That's a pretty fair assessment, really -- this is a record that sounds carved out of life instead of screwed together on an assembly line, worn to perfection and pockmarked with one-of-a-kind divots, built to last with a minimum of moving parts. You might get cleaner lines out of the ones that make mechanical clicks, but they're a lot harder to sink your teeth into.