MARTIN SEXTON IS the reigning sex symbol on the folk festival circuit for good reason. Out of his rough-hewn, dockworker-like visage springs an angelic voice blessed with a yodeler's lilt and enough staying power to slur his cadences with inflections of blues and soul. Live, the 34-year-old singer-songwriter hurtles himself into extended bouts of rapture, daring listeners to either snicker or fully engage his passion. In the studio, Sexton is considerably more restrained, teasing the bliss junkies by letting his songs carry more of the emotional weight. The self-produced Wonder Bar, his second major-label outing and fourth overall, is his most accessible collection to date (though still resolutely untrendy), a successfully tempered bid to broaden his cult following.
As with all of Sexton's records, Wonder Bar is heavily influenced by the musician's upbringing as one of 12 children from a staunch Catholic family in Syracuse. Unlike so many other refugees of Catholic instruction, Sexton hasn't been left scarred and scabrous by his religious background. On the contrary, he's a spiritual good Samaritan who trusts pain and sadness as a path to redemption, and cherishes his faith with a grateful optimism. But he's a shrewd, subtle preacher who has mastered an art of whimsy that actually reduces the cornpone quotient in his songs. "Does Satan wear a suit and tie/Or does he work at the Dairy Queen?" he sings at the beginning of Wonder Bar's lead single, "Hallelujah," later adding, "What about Jesus/Didn't he do it too?/Hang out with prostitutes/And have a drink or two?"
Musically, "Hallelujah" is one of a handful of feel-good shuffles sprinkled throughout the album, most bearing the accent of Seventies folk-rock. It's a pleasantly retro gambit that works because Sexton has recruited ex-Springsteen pianist David Sancious and ex-King Crimson bassist Tony Levin to go with his longtime drummer Joe Bonadio in an ace ensemble fronted by his guitar and vocals. But it doesn't take many listens to understand that these airy ditties function as ballast for the more substantial testimonials that anchor Wonder Bar, tunes that maximize the dramatic impact of Sexton's marvelous voice.
There's the triumphant croon that climaxes the anthemic blues ballad "Real Man," where he pays tribute "For every woman or car crash that ever broke me in two/For showing me that there's always a way through/And that I'm a real man." There's "Where Did I Go Wrong," a heartbroken lover's hymn that raises goosebumps with a series of ethereal howls. There's "Elephant's Memory," an ominous, enigmatic tale of childhood innocence. And then there's the baptismal closer, "Golden Road," where Sexton commands that you "Bring your song to the river at sunrise/Sing that song 'til the river runs clean/It will happen to you/As it happened to me."