If I Were a Butterfly
3 1/2 out of 5 stars
The publicity notes for Rayland Baxter’s fourth full-length effort describe him as a Nashville eccentric. That effectively summarizes the musician’s approach to these ten tunes.
Baxter, like many other musicians, found himself hunkered down during the pandemic. He spent a year living in an old rubber band factory-turned studio in the Kentucky woods called Thunder Sound. Instead of booking limited time in a facility, he had months alone to marinate songs in his head and on tape. That provided a wide palette in which to work and re-work material, gradually adding sounds, layering, and editing his music. This became his first co-produced album.
He was also mourning the loss of his father, the legendary pedal steel player Bucky Baxter, who passed just as Rayland was starting these songs. He appears on one of them.
The opening sounds of him as a four-year-old on the disc’s measured title track then expands into a psychedelic, occasionally spacey pop collage with overdubbed vocals darting about a winding melody. It establishes the disc’s often wildly experimental tone provided by a large swath of players (Baxter sticks to singing with sporadic keyboards and mandolin). Soul horns appear and dissolve as the six-minute track progresses. If Baxter crafted nothing else, this alone would be an impressive feat. But there is plenty more.
The first two-thirds of this offbeat release finds the auteur shifting styles. Like Beck, whose cut-and-paste pastiche much of this seems informed by, the album zig-zags, ducks and weaves with edgy energy throwing us off balance, yet focusing on what comes next. Lyrics are similarly scattered and, like the music, often oblique, but work within the context of these selections. On “Rubberband Man” his voice is processed as if it’s emerging from a tinny speaker as a funky beat pushes the tune.
Just as you’re getting used to this hyper-energized groove, he switches into Randy Newman’s ballad gear for the supple “Tadpole.” It’s a chilling story about a neighbor committing suicide by shooting herself and how that incident affected his spirituality. That leads into “Dirty Knees” a mid-tempo ballad with a jazz trumpet solo floating and stinging throughout, which naturally sounds like nothing else on the recording.
But at track eight, Baxter changes once again; this time to a winding, dreamy, dark, piano-based ballad, called “Violence,” that’s part experimental/part singer/songwriter. Here, as on the closing “My Argentina,” the vitality and direction exhibited in the early part of the disc dissipate in a haze of excess lyrics and dreary melodies not strong enough to sustain both songs’ length.
There is still plenty to enjoy. Baxter is a restless, and well, eccentric talent with piles of zippy ideas. Enough of them are on display on varied If I Were a Butterfly to keep listeners involved in this frequently successful and generally intriguing project.