Tom Baxter

Skybound

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There was a popular term slung around in British music critic circles a few years back, "dad rock." That is, anything that middle-aged men could point to in an attempt to prove that they were still as hip and with it as they had been when they were teens, and which they mostly liked because it was so baldly derivative of what they liked when they were teens. Wilco, for example, is probably the ultimate dad-rock act, with Coldplay not far behind. The time has come, however, for a complementary genre: "mum rock." Mum rock is best heard with a glass of white wine after the kids have been put to bed, or perhaps in the midst of a luxurious warm bath. Annie Lennox's solo records are mum rock, for example, as are the oeuvres of Norah Jones and David Gray. And the second album by London-based singer/songwriter Tom Baxter, Skybound, may well be an early apotheosis of the style. As relentlessly, overbearingly mellow as James Taylor, Baxter nonetheless clearly wishes to be taken seriously as an artist along the lines of Jeff Buckley, and so there is a certain pious earnestness to much of Skybound that keeps the singer/songwriter from just going for it and whipping off a couple of mawkish, sure-fire chart-toppers like John Mayer's "Daughters" or any recent Sting solo single. First single "Better" is almost painfully tasteful, from the just-so cracks in Baxter's voice on the title word to the deliberate build of the arrangement, with the rhythm section not even kicking in until a little over a third of the way through the song, followed a bit later by a full-on string section crescendo just in time for the bridge, which comes in just exactly where one would expect the bridge to come in. That near total lack of surprise is the main problem with Skybound: honestly, as far as the sappy end of mum rock goes, Baxter is nowhere near as irritating as the ghastly James Blunt. The opening "Night Like This," for example, dabbles in some genuinely atmospheric keyboard fills that wouldn't sound out of place on an Air album, and "Tell Her Today" flirts with Brazilian rhythms and a slurred whisper of a vocal akin to the spiritual godfather of mum rock, Nick Drake. But then there's something as thoroughly wet as the bathetic centerpiece ballad "Half a Man," nearly eight minutes' worth of sub-Jeff Buckley keening over a tortured semi-melody even Van Morrison would find repetitive. An ideal Christmas gift for a middle-aged aunt whom you don't really know all that well, Skybound lacks the vision to reach too far beyond that comfortable demographic.

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