The plight of singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith epitomizes the problem with the current major-label groupthink. Despite great press and a dedicated fan base, Sexsmith couldn't get the full support of his label, which clearly expected the sort of commercial action that, in this climate, artists like Sexsmith (and, for that matter, 99 percent of all working musicians) just can't produce. While labels have the right to worry about their bottom lines, Sexsmith still seems like a strong investment, the sort of catalog artist that could fill the gap when the current fads peter out. After all, people other than 12-year-olds do buy records. But Interscope sent Sexsmith packing after three stellar albums, and in a way the move may have freed him from some self-imposed constraints. Sexsmith benefited from a successful working relationship with producer Mitchell Froom, who was well suited to Sexsmith's low-key, '60s-styled pop. But, according to Sexsmith, Froom favored the songwriter's somber side, keeping his more playful tendencies in check. For his fourth album Blue Boy, Sexsmith turned to unlikely ally Steve Earle, who, along with his "Twangtrust" partner Ray Kennedy, helped give the disc bounce without abandoning Sexsmith's sad-sack outlook. Blue Boy sounds of a piece with its predecessors, but it also finds Sexsmith exploring new corners of music. Longtime fans may be put off initially by the loose exuberance of "This Boy" and the bluesy goof "Not Too Big," let alone the ska-flavored fluke "Never Been Done," but even these atypical tracks play to Sexsmith's strengths. A master of melody and a singer talented enough to handle tricky arrangements, he brings his usual sweet croon to the slow, organ-drenched soul of "Cheap Hotel" and the folk-infused "Tell Me Again" and "Thirsty Love." Admittedly, the intentionally catchall Blue Boy, which ranges from faux cocktail jazz on "Fool Proof" to the British Invasion-inspired "Keep It In Mind," doesn't flow as well as the perfectly paced collections he created with Froom, but Sexsmith's casual brilliance compensates for the relative lack of cohesion. Sexsmith has sounded absolutely in control all along, and he has yet to waver from his dedication to class and unabashed beauty.