It’s often that the meaning behind the title of an album isn’t that transparent to the listener. Only after reading interviews or reviewing lyrics will things start to click. However, for Rayland Baxter’s third LP Wide Awake, no such research is required. Melding alt-country rock with catchy hooks, pop elements and his folk roots feels like an awakening for one of the coolest names around. Coupled with a subtext of post-truth era themes and lost love, it appears contemporary Americana has arisen from its slumber.
The stripped-down, folk-country feel of Feathers and Fishhooks (2012) first introduced us to the next best thing to come out of Nashville. It came as a surprise then that his keenly awaited follow up Imaginary Man (2015) took a step in a more mainstream direction. Baxter’s production-oriented sound left the record and the songwriter with somewhat of an identity crisis. It could have been easy for him to return to his rustic roots, but with a heart set on fleshing out his sound, Baxter rented an abandoned rubber band factory and spent 15 hours a day over three months writing this third album. Clearly in pursuit of a bigger sound, he enlisted the help of producer and bassist Butch Walker (Pink, Weezer), guitarist Nick Bockrath (Cage the Elephant), drummer Erick Slick (Dr. Dog), pianist Aaron Embry (Jane’s Addiction, Elliott Smith) and Rayland’s father, Bucky Baxter (R.E.M, Bob Dylan) on pedal steel. Blending Baxter’s Nashville roots with some West Coast flare has delivered a fun and refreshing set of songs.
Right from the outset, Baxter’s light-hearted aesthetic sets a laid-back scene as he preludes opening track “Strange American Dream”. Distinctive country elements are sprinkled throughout a fleshed-out arrangement, ranging from rock n roll guitars, twinkling piano and bouncing basslines. Each shine with variable accord through each section avoiding any sense of repetition. However, look beneath this rollicking soundscape and you’ll find a message of responsibility and unrest in his homeland; the death of innocence, the transparency of social injustice and the monetary obsession painting the 21st century American dream “red, white and green”. The first hint of Baxter expanding his written word is a meaningful one.
He then portrays a hopeless romantic on the brilliant first single “Casanova”. Though the charming piano that greeted us on the opener remains, a poppy groove supplants the country elements from his previous works. Over a syncopated bassline, he warns “got a real bad feeling I’m gonna let her down”. This self-deprecation reveals a side he may not have been ready to own up to on more sombre releases. The track is followed by “Angeline”, another one of the most compelling songs on the album. The number of different styles are incorporated – a contemporary pop intro with punchy snares and reverb-soaked vocals, honky-tonk piano in the chorus and even a vaudeville style piano shakedown in the bridge.
Shimmery guitars and complimentary piano announce the Americana of “79 Shiny Revolvers”. Allowing us to take a breather from the fast-paced opening three tracks, Baxter laments of gun violence and the desensitisation to these atrocities in 2018 – “middle of June, another officer down”. Backing strings and a strong vocal performance give weight to a tragically satirical refrain, “we can blow them away, the American way”.
“Amelia Baker” conjures a Bahamas likeness with fingerpicked guitar and a melodic piano. Relative to other songs on the album, its steady verse feels repetitive. “Without Me” hammers home a Tennessee feel, the slow fingerpicked acoustic ballad allowing Baxter’s razor-sharp vocals to cut through the mix and shine. A female vocalist sings as if in response to Baxter’s plea, “a thousand tears and you’ll be doing fine, without me,” rounding out a heartfelt tune that feels well written, not well worn. The mid-album sojourn is followed with a re-energising, albeit peculiar, “Hey Larocco”. An interesting tale involving a run-in with former motorbike champion Mike Larocco is told over a rhythmic bassline and twangy guitars and strings. With an infectious hook in the chorus, it’s clear that Baxter’s measured vocals are what grounds songs like these from extravagance.
“Sandra Monica” is one of the most unexpected songs on the album. Reminiscent of Beck in the Morning Phase (2014) days, a waltzy bass ties down a beautifully textured psychedelic groove. Though “Everything To Me” opens with sounds that have become well established by this point, it absolutely takes off with a chorus that melts as it releases. A bassline that crawls down at the end of each refrain will make it near impossible for listeners to avoid embarrassing themselves by playing it on air guitar each time around. Backing vocals add an element of 60s flair, as Baxter professes “you mean everything to me”.
“Let It All Go Man” is a fitting, albeit slow closer which harkens back to the style Baxter began with. What can be viewed as a yardstick for his progression as a songwriter, Baxter slowly unravels from the main three-chord progression of the verse with all the care of a flower budding. His lyrics equally blossom as he informs the listener to relax in the face of “contemporary sadness and fire breathing dragons”. It’s a heart-warming message in an age in which anxiety and depression reign supreme.
Credit must be paid where credit is due. Following the criticism of his sophomore release, the easy thing for Rayland Baxter to do would have been to revert to his folk roots. However, he shines on his third release by taking a risk and pushing his artistic growth towards the bigger, hook-oriented and accessible sound he initially aimed for. Where Imaginary Man (2015) separated modern styles from his inherent raw country aesthetic, Wide Awake bridges them to create a refreshingly unique contemporary alt-country pop album.