KaiL Baxley’s voice tells stories. I don’t mean that in the obvious sense, that he uses his voice and the words that come out of his mouth to tell stories. I mean that he has the kind of voice that is rich with tales of hardship, rejection, and neglect. When you hear one of his songs, you don’t have to understand the lyrics to know that he’s singing the blues.
His wonderful 2013 debut album (which was really a double EP), Heatstroke / The Wind and the War, showcased his blues skills on one half and his folk-singer skills on the other. A Light That Never Dies, his first proper LP, doesn’t provide as convenient a dividing line between genres. Baxley transitions from blues to folk to gospel to soul without warning, blurring the lines in almost every song. “Mr. Downtown” begins as a blues song and quickly crescendos into a gospel anthem. The acoustic guitar in “Chasing James Dean” devolves into a sliding electric guitar solo during the bridge, then seamlessly back to just the acoustic for the final verse. Even the title track meshes a blues harmonica with chimes and blasts of horns that belong on an old Motown track.
Light is a step up from Baxley’s last effort in almost every way. The album feels like a cohesive work of art, whereas Heatstroke came across as a tape of your best demos you might send to a label as a sample of your work. Granted, it was an incredible sample, but Light stretches farther than Heatstroke with adventurous instrumentation. And even though are a bunch of different genres in the mix, they all work together to form a solid, consistent sound from beginning to end- the sound of soulful blues.
There’s no place for Baxley in the current musical climate. Blues rockers like The Black Keys and Gary Clark Jr. have taken up where The White Stripes left off and have seen some popular success. But if you don’t subscribe to the same crunchy guitar school of rock as those guys (and girl!), the industry doesn’t know what to do with you. It used to have at least an inkling of an idea; Bill Withers had four singles in the ‘70s and ‘80s that reached the top 10 on Billboard’s charts. But then again, has any other hit single since Withers had the same aching appeal as “Ain’t No Sunshine”?
Similar soul music has enjoyed blips of popularity in recent years. As much as the contrarian in me doesn’t want to admit it, artists like Aloe Blacc and Sam Smith use elements of the genre in their music, even if they don’t reach the same kind of lyrical depth as someone like Withers or Baxley. Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz brought attention to Bobby Womack and Kanye shed light on Charlie Wilson. Baxley’s last album received minimal attention from NPR and American Songwriter, and so far American Songwriter is the only notable publication to give Light any love. But for now, I’m just glad it exists. Soul music this dark belongs on the fringes.