Flip through the Ricky Martin bin at your local record store and you'll learn the first commandment of pop-star marketing: put the artist's photo on the cover. Ron Sexsmith's three albums for Interscope Records followed this maxim religiously, though in his case the strategy might have backfired: with his pug nose and chipmunk cheeks, he's hardly the sort to set teenage hearts aflutter, and despite a satchel of reviews that verged on the ecstatic, Interscope dropped the Canadian singer-songwriter last year. Still, if you've ever seen Sexsmith perform you know that once he opens his mouth he's the handsomest man in the room, his velvet baritone perfectly complementing his quiet humor and understated empathy for his characters. Blue Boy (Spinart)--which sports a cartoon he drew of himself as the subject of the Thomas Gainsborough painting--confirms once again his extraordinary gifts as a poet and storyteller. In "Cheap Hotel" an abused wife makes off with her kids and decides, "Behind the curtain / There may be sun / One thing's for certain / Thy will be done / On earth as it is done in hell / God bless this cheap hotel." In "Never Been Done" a boy who can't seem to satisfy his father's ambitions for him finds joy with a woman who accepts him as he is, and in "Parable" a "poor loser / From the wrong side of the street" nurses a murderous hatred for the "bad winner / Who'll rub you out and rub it in." That novelist's curiosity about other people can also pay off in a solid sense of self--in the surprisingly bluesy "Not Too Big," Sexsmith declares, "I'm not too big on dancin' / To someone else's tune / They'll fill your head as if it was / Some hot air balloon." Compared to Sexsmith's last Interscope album, the artfully arranged Whereabouts, the new record is more straightforward, though producers Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy do add a few grand touches: "This Song" kicks off the record with a gritty fanfare of baritone sax as Sexsmith frets, "I came unarmed, they've all got knives / How can this song survive?" He needn't worry--20 years from now, when Ricky Martin is shaking his fanny in Vegas, these songs will still be alive. Sunday, June 17, 7 PM, Martyrs', 3855 N. Lincoln; 773-404-9494.