REVIEW: Rayland Baxter’s “Wide Awake” Is His Best Yet


No treatment of Hollywood, love, and the American Dream can be completely novel, but the novelty lies in the writer’s perspective and technique. Rayland Baxter’s well-written new album, Wide Awake (ATO Records), has a strong sense of place, populated by distinct characters. This, combined with Baxter’s musical moves in the direction of a more pop-oriented sound, results in a superb album, his best.

Rayland Baxter comes from a musical heritage, but ended up in a different with place it. His father, Bucky Baxter, played steel guitar with Bob Dylan in the ’90s, and has played a number of instruments for Ryan Adams, Steve Earle, Joe Henry, and R.E.M., among others. The long, lean Rayland, a lacrosse player in college, stayed away from music, until a visit with his father to Israel to visit a family friend. There, he was introduced to a number of songwriters, setting him on a different path from his father.

Baxter cleverly weaves character and setting in his song as a way to execute callbacks. The “Santa Monica mountains” on the fifth track, “Amelia Baker,” transmute into the title character of the eighth song, “Sandra Monica.” Sandra Monica/Santa Monica is just as easily a person as a place near Hollywood given the form, the American Dream that Baxter both loves and, as he expresses on “79 Shiny Revolvers,” feels the urge to destroy.”

As a straight-up country record, Wide Awake would have been too heavy. The talk of drugs, gun violence, and even masturbation would make this indigestible. By incorporating pop, and even Motown R&B sounds, Baxter has made this record a listenable experience. Baxter has gone further though, shaping lyrics to fit these musical sequences, such as the retro references, “cuz I’m hearin / crimson and clover / playing over and over and over” in “Sandra Monica.”

Much of the credit for the album’s sound goes to producer Butch Walker, who recorded it with Todd Stopera at Ruby Red in Santa Monica, CA. Walker also sang and played guitar, bass, and percussion. Ryan A. Keith, who did additional recording at Music City U.S.A. in Nashville, laid down vocals. Rayland brought in his father, Bucky, on pedal steel, as well as Lloyd Green. Nick Bockrath, who co-wrote the first track, “Strange American Dream,” sings and plays guitar. Aaron Embry played keys and sang, while Eric Slick played drums, Bobbye Hall was responsible for percussion, and Rob Moose handled string arrangement and performancement. Additional vocals were provided by Lennon Stella, Katie Schechter, Emily Crawford, and Misa Arriaga.

While this album involved a number of hands, it never feels overproduced. It doesn’t feel too pop, and it doesn’t feel too country. It feels just right. Get your copy here.

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