Rayland Baxter – Wide Awake review

Secret Meeting score: 73

by Joseph Purcell

The appetite for uplifting, sunshine pop, cast in the mould of the 60s and 70s California sound, shows no signs of abating. After the success of the likes of Foxygen and Cut Worms, Nashville native, Rayland Baxter, continues in the same vein to provide a slice of reflective, contemporary Americana.

Following the critical, but limited commercial success of 2012’s Feathers and Fishhooks and 2015’s Imaginary Man, Baxter has taken a step forward and produced a record that definitely has the crossover feel. But during the writing period, the prospect of President Trump was on the horizon with his abhorrent, faux patriotic but acutely racist ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan. Plus, the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests and the pain of mass school shootings were still to the forefront in the minds of many, so despite it brimming with poptastic melodies, it has a dark undercurrent running throughout.

In the wake of such events, Baxter retreated to the secluded surrounds of an old rubber factory in Kentucky to set about his task of reconnecting with his music and to find a vessel in which he could channel his emotional angst at the state of his homeland. And in his desire to embrace his vision, Baxter enlisted the help of an army of collaborators, including bassist and producer Butch Walker (Weezer), guitarist Nick Bockrath (Cage the Elephant), drummer Erick Slick (Dr Dog), pianist Aaron Embry (Brian Eno, Elliot Smith) and the incredible talents of his father, Bucky Baxter on pedal steel- known most notably for his work with Bob Dylan, REM and Ryan Adams.

Baxter opens the album with Strange American Dream, and in his Southern drawl spews out  critical lyrics that detail his apathy to the situation the country finds itself in- ‘I close my eyes and realise that I’m alive inside this strange American dream… On the red, white and green’. It is a unique quality harnessed by Baxter in that he creates music that portrays an inoffensive, often uplifting subtlety, but that is sharply juxtaposed with the cutting social commentary of his lyrics.

This is displayed further on 79 Shiny Revolvers, as Baxter this time takes aim at the American obsession with guns- ‘79 shiny revolvers, American made misery nines, Little you know, maybe you need one, One in your left hand and one in your right’, focussing on the morbid preoccupation of the damage they leave behind, and marks both a bold and intriguing step from a musician deeply rooted in the musical sounds of the South. ‘The camera’s on to cover the action, civilians all dressed to the nines, They gather around to see the disaster, Take a picture or two, Or get on the news, What a beautiful life.’ 

Following the terrific first single Casanova, which is laced with a piano laden sensitivity that intertwines with a lusciously pulsating bass line to deliver a slice of Baxter’s true talents, Wide Awake continues apace with the raw energy of Amelia Baker and the punchy Angeline. But it is in the less immediate, but equally superb tracks toward the end of Wide Awake, that the album’s highlights appear in Everything to Me and Let It All Go, Man. On the former, a terrific 60s bass line again holds down a poptastic tune, while the latter is a slow burner that brings a delightfully gentle conclusion to an album of immense promise.

Wide Awake is an excellent step forward from Rayland Baxter- embellishing upon his folky strengths, but embracing new ideas across an album filled with beautifully pitched moments, rocky interludes and majestic piano laden tracks- all of which certainly highlights a songwriter moving in the right direction and shows great promise for the future.

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