There’s a huge appetite out there in the world for the kind of gleaming, poetic heartbreak that Rayland Baxter peddles on his latest record, Wide Awake.
The touchstones for his music have remained fairly constant over his last few studio albums – he combines an earthy, direct hit of The Beatles with a dash of Beck’s scratchy, mutant funk and the precise, whimsical poetry of The Kinks and Nilsson.
Made with a variety of folks including his father and Cage the Elephant’s Nick Bockrath, this new record leans heavily on the pop classicism of the Beatles, but only slightly dials back the muscular grooves that drew those early Beck comparisons. And of course, there are still those fantastic moments where he yelps and croons like Ray Davies.
After the slightly disappointing reception for his last one, for this record he doubles down on the lush, roomy Phil Spector-esque production he loves, and uses it to add depth and richness to songs like “79 Shiny Revolvers” and “Hey Larocco”. Fortunately, this means that most of Wide Awake sounds like somebody made a mixtape that only features songs from Something Else by the Kinks, Imagine and Mellow Gold.
Despite all these weighty sonic call-backs, Baxter does manage to make his own identity distinct. It’s in the combination of all of these seemingly disparate but complementary elements that his own unique artistic vision shines.
Apart from Cut Worms or Foxygen, Baxter is probably the most skilled replicator of the comfortable, elegant pop music that appeared around the mid-'60s and continued long into the '70s. He has a way of imbuing some of his songs with a golden largesse without seeming like it’s an intentional move. The choruses, lyrics and sounds simply have to be that luxurious – check out the chorus and guitars on “Everything to Me”, the poetry of “Sandra Monica” and the sticky charm of “Hey Larocco”.
The album ends with the fantastic “Let It All Go, Man”, which typifies Baxter’s wonderful ear for a melody. It’s sweet but not cloying, delicate but not lightweight and soothing without sounding anonymous.
While it must be a compliment to be compared to some of the greatest songwriters of all time, that comes with its own pressures and difficulties. Thankfully, despite everybody and their dog comparing Baxter to legendary musicians and writers, he has managed to make an album that not only does justice to those comparisons, but actually warrants them.