A decade and a half ago, Tom Baxter, was riding the wave of an acoustic singer-songwriter renaissance, championed by the New Acoustic Movement and Roadworks tours, which played a part in the successes of Tom McRae, Ben & Jason, Polly Paulusma and KT Tunstall. Like Tunstall, Baxter landed a major label deal but Columbia didn’t invest in him as a long-term prospect (Tunstall was, conversely, carefully developed by Relentless). Baxter was dropped after his debut Feather & Stone failed to cut the commercial mustard; a criminal state of affairs, given that the album was an incredible, hit-riddled record, dripping with giant string arrangements and emotional energy. The independently recorded yet equally strong Skybound followed in 2007 and spawned the single ‘Better’, a cover of which - for better or worse depending on your view - was a big hit for Boyzone a year later. Fast forward to 2018 and Tom Baxter - having been married, divorced and married again in that time - is back with The Other Side of Blue, a record that is devoid of all the whistle-and-bellery that adorned his first two outings. Every song features just a solo vocal with only guitar or piano for company. Brave? Foolish? Let’s find out…
The title track and first single opens the record; a philosophical post-break-up song which shows Baxter playing to his strengths, building from his dusty low register up to a Buckleyish falsetto, simply backed by piano. It’s a weep-fest, basically, made for Radio 2. The less showy ‘For Crying Out Loud’ reminds us of Baxter’s guitar talents, flecked, as they are, with Andalusian and classical flourishes. It has a starker approach lyrically and feels all the more personal and powerful for it: “How can I show my heart when you cut it out?” is the payoff line in the chorus - it’s a weep-fest, basically, but probably a bit intense for Radio 2. A welcome break from the sobbing comes in the form of ‘The Ballad of Davey Graham’ - a fine celebration of the recently departed godfather of DADGAD - which segues nicely into the gently rolling folk guitar of ‘Black Are the Gypsy Horses’.
With echoes of Tori Amos, the excellent ‘Cold’ returns us to the piano and indeed to the soul-baring of those opening tracks. The straight folk of ‘Hot Wax To A Stone’ feels a little twee in its wake before the tremolo electric guitar of ‘Heroes & Monsters’ provides a welcome change of texture, framing a sober dissection of a love gone wrong. The Paul Simonesque fingerpicking of ‘One Life’ leads us in a more positive direction “I hope we’re born again/Just like hope is born again/But if there’s one life… well that’s alright” and likewise there is fragile hope in the delicately picked electric guitar of ‘Do You Know Me’ which perfectly captures the second-guessing and self-doubt involved when new love appears on the horizon.
The schmaltzier piano ballad ‘In Your Hands’ has less depth and exposes Baxter’s penchant for a cheesy love song; that Boyzone cover of ‘Better’ probably paid a bill or two and ‘In Your Hands’ could doubtless earn its keep in a similar way if it found its way onto the lips of the right singer at the right time. ‘Lover’ with its raw, affecting vocal is, by contrast, totally dairy-free but no less carefully crafted. Closing number ‘Where The Wild River Runs’ has more than a smattering of Leonard Cohen about it in its semi-spoken rhyming lyric but is pleasingly English at the same time.
With so much intimate, downbeat fare and with every song so skeletally arranged, Baxter is in danger of losing some fans of his more lavish earlier recordings with this release. Despite this, ‘The Other Side of Blue’ is a powerful testament to Baxter’s considerable talents as a songwriter and a reminder of his arresting delivery in the live setting. Leaving his occasional MOR leanings aside, the songs themselves, lyrically and melodically - even in this spartan state - are as rich and rewarding as they have always been. There are very few songwriters working in the UK whose output is even half as consistent and the pared-down nature of this record only brings that quality control into sharper relief. The bottom line is this: he may well be both brave and foolish but Tom Baxter is one singer-songwriter who sounds pretty damn good naked.
Review by Rich Barnard
The Other Side Of Blue will be released August 17th, 2018 via The Orchard.