Some roots rock performers go far out of their way to convince you of their down-home bona fides, but Rayland Baxter's music sounds as easily and unaffectedly Southern as a glass of sweet iced tea enjoyed on the back porch on a warm and slightly humid day. There's not a lot of twang in Baxter's music (or his voice), but his melodies and arrangements are evocative in the manner of a good novel, painting a vivid portrait of time and place, and there's a laid-back but emotionally powerful vibe to his lyrics and vocals that's smart but unpretentious, and generates a sense of drama that feels low key on the surface, but inside is as potent as vintage Tennessee Williams. Rayland Baxter's second album, 2015's Imaginary Man, shows he's not afraid of being a grand-scale romantic, portraying himself as a regretful heartbreaker on "Yellow Eyes," painting regret in several different colors in "Mother Mother," and opening up his heart on "Rugged Lovers" and "All in My Head." Baxter's songs are supported by concise but colorful arrangements (with thoughtful string charts and occasional pedal steel work from Rayland's father, Bucky Baxter) that make clever use of echo and reverb to give the performances a rich, powerful sound that makes their case without weighing down the music. And if Baxter isn't quite the virtuoso as he is a singer, he knows instinctively how to tell his stories and make his characters seem real and compelling. Imaginary Man presents Baxter and his material in a manner that's vividly passionate and a little swampy while avoiding cliches as he offers these sketches on life and love in the American South; it's a big step forward for Baxter, and will hopefully help him gain the audience he deserves.
(Digital Download - PIAS #PIASDIGITAL 568)
Review by Mark Deming