Sexton Blake Plays the Hits!

One of the many great things about the new Sexton Blake album is that it kind of feels like a mix tape made just for you by a good friend.

One of the many great things about the new Sexton Blake album is that it kind of feels like a mix tape made just for you by a good friend. And that friend has wisely chosen to include songs from the past three decades of music. The thing is, this isn’t a mix tape at all: it’s an all-covers album from Portland’s brilliant indie popmeisters, Sexton Blake.

A little history on the band: Josh Hodges recorded an album by himself in New York, under the stage name “Sexton Blake.” He subsequently moved to Portland and started performing shows with a live band, keeping the name. Upon arriving in Stumptown, the Elliott Smith comparisons became more frequent (and not completely unfounded) and Sexton Blake contributed one of the best tracks (“Rose Parade”) to the Elliott Smith covers album, To Elliott From Portland. And while Sexton Blake Plays the Hits! still has some of the same double-tracked, softly sung vocals, the material covered here is nothing Smith would have done.

The songs are taken from a wide swath of musical styles from pop music’s recent past, but are all presented in a decidedly Sexton Blake-y way. This album sounds a little fuller and better produced than earlier efforts, possibly due to the presence of the full band that carries the weight of many of the songs.

The album starts with the cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart,” which got some digital ink on Pitchfork Media and therefore got the attention of bloggers everywhere. It’s a wonderful version, thanks in part to the unusual tone of the lead guitar and the soft, beautiful vocals.

The cover of Milli Vanilli’s “Girl You Know It’s True” is mostly played on acoustic guitar, with a little bass from Thom Homolya and an electric guitar playing some slippy-slidey riffs throughout; there is nary a synthesizer nor tinny drum machine to be found.

Their version of Erasure’s “Oh L’amour” underplays the vocal hook found on the original and highlights a vocal harmony line and a slide guitar (or is it keyboard?) instead. It’s a very tricky thing to do–sidestepping a line that we normally would expect to hear the most of–but Sexton Blake does it confidently and competently.

Paula Abdul’s “Rush Rush” and ELO’s “Evil Woman” get changed around so much that, until the chorus hits, the songs are virtually unrecognizable–and that’s a good thing.

There are 13 songs presented here, and all of them have some really great qualities to them. After several listens through, there are a few standout tracks. The Dream Academy’s “Life in a Northern Town” is great due to its driving guitar drone, intermittent crazy guitar squonks, layered lead vocals and Tim Edgar’s crashing toms and cymbals. All of these elements work together to propel the song and make it something vibrant and Portlandish, especially with lyrics referring to “watching water rolling down the drain.” What’s more Portland than watching the rainwater? Another standout is the cover of Rod Stewart’s new wave song “Young Turks,” which features some strong, clean electric guitar strumming, some lead synth lines from Ryan Bjornstad, and most notably, the vocal harmonies of the chorus which sing the fantastically catchy hook, “Young hearts be free tonight / Time is on your side.”

So we have a great album of choice covers, as a follow-up to what seemed to be a really personal debut album. It’s an odd decision for a sophomore release, but it works wonderfully, easily avoiding the “sophomore slump” which frequently follows brilliant first albums. Plays the Hits! expands on the Sexton Blake sound, informs listeners of some wonderful (and sometimes cheesy) songs of yesteryear, but finds in them real worth, not just ironic value. This album is a pleasure to listen to and should find its way to the ears of music fans everywhere. This is well crafted indie-pop which nods to the past while remaining individual and quite distinct.

Sexton Blake at the Doug Fir this Saturday, July 7. Tickets: $8 Doors: 8pm.