The neo-soul stylings of artists like Sam Smith, Hozier and Adele have never really done much for me. The stagnant, smooth voices and looping minimal instrumentation leave me feeling empty—waiting for an embrace that never quite arrives. I share the nostalgic desire of the neo-soul movement: to go back to the tracks where emotion pulled you everywhere. But so far, the genre’s productions are a far cry from the warm, sweaty, gut-wrenching, double-you-over feeling that its influences Sam Cooke and Otis Redding could push into anything.
KaiL Baxley is not a Cooke or a Redding—he’s a young, white guitar player with a very strong production team—but miraculously, some of their magic is in his music. Baxley’s new album, A Light That Never Dies, has the same uncanny ability to dredge up latent feelings of love and loss, with contemporary styling that feels both intimate and universal. It may be the sound I’ve been looking for all along.
This is Baxley’s sophomore release, and represents a more contemplative sound and greater commitment to blues/soul than his previous release, Heatstroke/The Wind And The War. An album which, despite strengths, lacked a consistent sound, hopping from pop-blues to folk to alt country. A Light features consistent, smooth blues production with a razor-sharp hip-hop edge, deploying powerful bass and sample-length blasts of harmonica and horns. It’s more a Stax record album than a Motown one, and the result is a product that feels silky-smooth but still packs a hefty emotional impact.
Standout opener “Light That Never Dies” begins with a Sam Smith-like intro—smooth vocals over muted guitar and soulful humming—but kicks into an unexpected second gear with a tight drumbeat, ripping harmonica and juicy sax line. “The Ballad Of Johnny Steel” shows nice control of blues-rock styling with distorted harmonica, forlorn lyrics with hip-hop phrasing and ends with a magnificent horn outro reminiscent of the iconic horn styling of Outkast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious.” Ballads “Tell The Morning Sun” and “Morning Light” show strong balance with upfront vocals, soulful steel guitar, and clean horns.
A Light That Never Dies is a pop album, and like any pop album, it’s focused on churning out hits. When tracks hit, they hit hard, but when they miss, they swipe at air like an embarrassed boxer. Lyrically, the album is solid but uninspiring; most of the lyrics are serviceable but seem like they were chosen to sound “cool” rather than provide any profound insight. The strong tracks on this album would have their power even if they were written in another language. They pull you to a place you feel you’re coming back to, even though you may have never been.