At some point, a musician’s backstory shouldn’t matter. There has to be some artistry to the music itself. Songs have to have hooks, lyrics have to be competent, production has to have some semblance of clarity. But an intriguing backstory can only help, and in that department, KaiL Baxley is set. He grew up in Williston, South Carolina, James Brown’s hometown, which the cynic in me would dismiss if it weren’t for the fact that Baxley genuinely knew Brown as a child. Baxley was also a boxer in high school, which lends him a certain respectability, physically speaking. After high school, he began playing for money on the streets throughout America, Europe, and Africa, because why not, I guess? Somehow he ended up homeless in California where he met a producer by chance*, which eventually led to the creation of these two EPs, released together on Bandcamp in February.
Whether or not Baxley’s life is actually dark, I don’t know. But his backstory sure sounds dark, and he looks kind of like a dark person on that album artwork, and the music is most definitely dark. Minor keys abound, whether in wailing harmonica or caffeinated piano riffs or rolling acoustic guitar. Baxley’s lyrics don’t tell sad stories; they tell hard stories. “Legend of the Western Hills” is a dream-state folk song about a girl who feels drawn to what’s bad for her. “The Rebel” is a heart-breaking story of a man with questions about his absent father. “Black River Son” could be about the same man who has found meaning in a woman. Baxley’s voice never betrays self-pity; these characters are the way they are. It is what it is.
You can’t hear James Brown’s influence immediately on these songs, but you have to wonder if the groove on the first half of the collection isn’t inherited from him. There was always a hint of darkness in Brown’s songs too, something vaguely menacing. In the waves of “HeatStroke”, the standout song in the group, Baxley is almost swept away by the swift piano funk. It’s the most exciting song on the disc because the music matches perfectly with its lyrical themes of pushing oneself to the brink in search of a high. It’s rare that you find such strong songwriting from beginning to end. The final song, “Old Voices”, gives us a dream about the singer’s home and the regret that comes with knowing it’s not the same when you go back. He ends the album on a mournful note, leaving you wondering if what’s next will be as heart-wrenching. Baxley’s music may be dark, but his future is certainly bright.
*Of course he did.