Music

On 'Wide Awake', Rayland Baxter Makes a Masterful Play for the Pop-rock Middle

Photo: Shervin Lainez

Rayland Baxter's third album on ATO is all semi-sunny 1960s rock recalling Dr. Dog, Fruit Bats, and Beck.

Wide Awake
Rayland Baxter

ATO

15 July 2018

You could say Rayland Baxter has singer-songwriter in his DNA. His father, Bucky Baxter, was a country artist and session musician who performed on storied albums such as R.E.M.'s Green, Ryan Adams's Gold, and Bob Dylan's magnificent Time Out of Mind. And over the course of two previous efforts, 2012's Feathers & Fishhooks and 2015's Imaginary Man, Baxter established those singer-songwriter bona fides, writing tunes that ran the gamut from Americana to folk rock. On Wide Awake, Baxter channels his inner Paul McCartney, cranks the melodies up to 11, and makes a masterful play for the pop-rock middle.

Wide Awake is a great record, full of catchy choruses and classic pop-rock sheen, marrying Baxter's folk roots with lush, bouncy 1960s arrangements like Nilsson come back for one more go-round. Tracks like "Hey Larocco" and "79 Shiny Revolvers" feel instantly timeless, and the latter shows off an obvious Beatles influence.

Meanwhile, Baxter hasn't abandoned the style that put him on the map. Two of the strongest songs on Wide Awake play within depths long-plumbed. "Without Me" and "Let It All Go, Man" are both stripped-down, mostly acoustic, and explore deeply human situations. "Without Me" is a conflicted breakup song that covers the emotional gamut of a relationship's dissolution, from the gut-wrenching truths ("I don't wanna be here anymore / You're wasted and I'm bored") to excitement about starting over ("Life is wonderful on my own") and apprehension about the future ("I never wanna be alone … All in all, it's nothing without love.") That the track is a duet makes it even more intimate, recalling the male/female vocal interplay of Matt Pond PA's excellent Still Summer, on which Caroline Reese breathed life into "The Full Stop" and Laura Burhenn floated fittingly in and out of "Last Breath".

Comparisons between Baxter and Father John Misty have been made, and sure – Baxter has things to say about the state of union. "Strange American Dream" is a meditation on how violence and greed are an ingrained part of American culture. And "79 Shiny Revolvers" packages pointed social commentary in an imminently listenable melody. But Wide Awake is not I Love You, Honeybear or Pure Comedy, and it's not trying to be. Wide Awake has more in common with Dr. Dog than with Josh Tillman, a focus on tight-but-not-too-tight arrangements and instantly catchy melodies.

Basically, it's a play for the middle. For the kind of semi-sunny pop that's sure to show up on Spotify radio stations by Fruit Bats, Born Ruffians, Beck, or Devendra Banhart. And it slays, not making the common tradeoff between earworm choruses and flimsy lyrics. In fact, the amount of craft evident in Baxter's lyricism borders on breathtaking at times. Like a rapper dropping into double-time, Baxter delves into a quick series of tight rhymes that break the song's usual patterns, as on the bridge of "Strange American Dream".

This ain't nothin' like
What I thought it'd be like
When I was a little kid
I drew dinosaurs fightin' wars
Behind the doors I reinforced with
Red, yellow, and green
From all the cameras in front of us
I couldn't tell you what it is I see
So I close my eyes and realize
That I'm alive deep inside this
Strange American dream

Baxter has never made a bad record, but he's also never made such a sublime one. Buoyant piano-forward arrangements give a sense of un-seriousness, levity, even as the lyrics can sneak up on you with social commentary or endless humanity. It's actually the antithesis of Father John Misty: something that could be explored endlessly for depth and nuance but could also just play happily in the background to please multiple generations on a long family road trip.

8
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

In 'Wandering Dixie', Discovering the Jewish South Is Part of Discovering Self

Sue Eisenfeld's Wandering Dixie is not only a collection of dispatches from the lost Jewish South but also a journey of self-discovery.

Music

Bill Withers and the Curse of the Black Genius

"Lean on Me" singer-songwriter Bill Withers was the voice of morality in an industry without honor. It's amazing he lasted this long.

Film

Jeff Baena Explores the Intensity of Mental Illness in His Mystery, 'Horse Girl'

Co-writer and star Alison Brie's unreliable narrator in Jeff Baena's Horse Girl makes for a compelling story about spiraling into mental illness.

Music

Pokey LaFarge Hits 'Rock Bottom' on His Way Up

Americana's Pokey LaFarge performs music in front of an audience as a way of conquering his personal demons on Rock Bottom.

Music

Joni Mitchell's 'Shine' Is More Timely and Apt Than Ever

Joni Mitchell's 2007 eco-nightmare opus, Shine is more timely and apt than ever, and it's out on vinyl for the first time.

Music

'Live at Carnegie Hall' Captures Bill Withers at His Grittiest and Most Introspective

Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall manages to feel both exceptionally funky and like a new level of grown-up pop music for its time.

Music

Dual Identities and the Iranian Diaspora: Sepehr Debuts 'Shaytoon'

Electronic producer Sepehr discusses his debut album releasing Friday, sparing no detail on life in the Iranian diaspora, the experiences of being raised by ABBA-loving Persian rug traders, and the illegal music stores that still litter modern Iran.

Television

From the Enterprise to the Discovery: The Decline and Fall of Utopian Technology and the Liberal Dream

The technology and liberalism of recent series such as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the latest Doctor Who series have more in common with Harry Potter's childish wand-waving than Gene Roddenberry's original techno-utopian dream.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2, The B-52's to Magazine

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part two with the Cure, Mission of Burma, the B-52's and more.

Music

Emily Keener's "Boats" Examines Our Most Treasured Relationships (premiere)

Folk artist Emily Keener's "Boats" offers a warm look back on the road traveled so far—a heartening reflection for our troubled times.

Music

Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".

Games

On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 1, Gang of Four to the Birthday Party

If we must #quarantine, at least give us some post-punk. This week we are revisiting the best post-punk albums of all-time and we kick things off with Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd., Throbbing Gristle, and more.

Music

Alison Chesley Toils in Human and Musical Connectivity on Helen Money's 'Atomic'

Chicago-based cellist, Alison Chesley (a.k.a. Helen Money) creates an utterly riveting listen from beginning to end on Atomic.

Music

That Kid's 'Crush' Is a Glittering Crossroads for E-Boy Music

That Kid's Crush stands out for its immediacy as a collection of light-hearted party music, but the project struggles with facelessness.

Books

Percival Everett's ​​​'Telephone​​​' Offers a Timely Lesson

Telephone provides a case study of a family dynamic shaken by illness, what can be controlled, and what must be accepted.

Reviews

Dream Pop's Ellis Wants to be 'Born Again'

Ellis' unhappiness serves as armor to protect her from despair on Born Again. It's better to be dejected than psychotic.

Music

Counterbalance No. 10: 'Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols'

The Spirit of ’77 abounds as Sex Pistols round out the Top Ten on the Big List. Counterbalance take a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Right. Now.

Film

'Thor: Ragnarok' Destroys and Discards the Thor Mythos

Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok takes a refreshingly iconoclastic approach to Thor, throwing out the old, bringing in the new, and packaging the story in a colourful, gorgeously trashy aesthetic that perfectly captures the spirit of the comics.

Music

Alps 2 and Harry No Release Eclectic Single "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" (premiere)

Alps 2 and Harry NoSong's "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" is a dizzying mix of mangled 2-step rhythms and woozy tranquil electronics.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.