A Light That Never Dies
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
It has been so long since soul music has pushed boundaries, it’s hard to remember the heyday of the era when that was commonplace. You have to go back to the early-mid 70s when artists such as Bill Withers, Gil Scott-Heron, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Bobby Womack, War and Marvin Gaye, among others, were consistently experimenting with expanding soul’s horizons. That’s not to say that other more contemporary acts haven’t done excellent work in the field (Aloe Blacc and even Lenny Kravitz come to mind), but to acknowledge that these are few and far between.
So it comes as a pleasant surprise to hear South Carolina singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Kail Baxley’s sophomore release. The follow-up to 2013’s impressive debut better displays his influences and abilities. He gracefully and effortlessly combines gospel, blues, pop, tinges of harder rock and even classical themes with immediately distinctive vocals. The result is a riveting 11 songs that herald Baxley as a major talent.
You will be immediately hooked by the opening “Light that Never Dies” with its bluesy harmonica, understated horns and vibe that feels both psychedelic and rootsy, a tough and unusual balancing act. Baxley’s laid back voice flirts and floats with music that avoids easy pigeonholing other than to say it’s immensely soulful. While the album is frontloaded with its most immediately accessible tracks, things really get interesting on its final third. That’s where the audacious “Troubled Souls” which shifts from John Martyn-styled folk to tough riff rock, lives. It’s followed by the hushed, acoustic “Chasing James Dean.” It allows Baxley’s moving and poetic lyrics free reign along with only a swampy southern slide guitar as accompaniment.
Regardless of the selection, there are musical surprises waiting, whether it’s the songwriting, vocals, instrumentation or arrangements, and likely in all. Most of this is like nothing we have heard before, certainly recently, which in this world of cookie-cutter artists is perhaps the biggest compliment one can pay. It’s also refreshing to see a relatively new artist be so immune to commercial considerations, both musically and visually by not even putting his picture on the package.
It’s too early to add Baxley to the list of those legendary names who have been so influential in soul’s history, but with this daring, uncompromising and genre-pushing release, he’s well on his way.