Lewis Taylor is the kind of artist that reminds music critics why they love music and got involved in this under-compensated game to begin with. Critics and other music nerds love nothing better than to tell a limited number of uninitiated about an artist or project only they and their nomadic ilk are intimately familiar with -- me included. It gives us infinite joy to introduce underappreciated work to under-informed music lovers who gripe about the lack of talent and good music available today for the masses to enjoy.
Artists like Lewis Taylor in his 2005 U.S. debut Stoned and his most recent project The Lost Album belie such conventional wisdom as absurd lies perpetrated on too many of today's independent and independent-minded major label artists. With each introduction of a Bilal, Tonex, Heavy, Conya Doss, Jon Bibbs, Trina Broussard and legions more, we smugly burst the Chicken Littles' balloons a handful at a time, just enough to create a cult status for these artists and keep the keys to an insider musical elitism for ourselves (yes, I do sometimes believe it is unconsciously intentional; if everyone's hip then what's so special?). Unfortunately, learning those handfuls of fans at a time may no longer be enough to keep feeding us the artists and music we love and it certainly will never allow us to experience the magnum opus some of these artists are capable of creating.
Last year Lewis Taylor announced he was retiring from the music industry and that indie label, Hacktone Records, release of The Lost Album is indeed to be his swansong. Retirement after only four albums of original material (I'm not counting the two remixed/re-envisioned albums or his kitschy 80's psychedelic pop work under the pseudonym Sheriff Jack). Retirement after a long and torturous career of being publicly ignored (outside of the UK) and misunderstood and mis-categorized by Island Records (Taylor's major label foray), all while being our critical darling. Though Hacktone's release of The Lost Album is a glorious auditory gem, its finality in the pre-mature end of a promising artist's career should also alert us to this distressing trend of losing artists from the marketplace who've not yet achieved their artistic peaks. Being a cult figure doesn't always pay the studio bills and the development of an artist and classic products like Aretha's I Never Loved A Man, Stevie's Songs In The Key of Life, EWF's All n All and Prince's Sign of The Times takes years, sometimes even decades, to germinate. The continuance of losing artist of Lewis Taylor's caliber could mean the loss of our generation of soul legends and the iconic works that can make them so.
Sermon aside, Brit-born Lewis Taylor has already created seminal works starting at 30 with his 1996 self-titled UK debut, back when he was labeled the blue-eyed soul savior of soul music. Back then he rejected such labels and created The Lost Album, a hallmark to 70's progressive rock and California soul pop, as a direct response to critics who compared him to-and a label that marketed him as the next-Al Green and Curtis Mayfield. Island promptly dismissed Taylor's submitted demo cuts of The Lost Album. Defeated, Taylor's half-hearted attempt at industry concession with the sublime, yet highly experimental Lewis II effectively ended his Island tenure once the album failed to capture Island's marketing department or the buying public's attention. That this album's material was conceived over a decade ago and still sounds as fresh is a testament to the timelessness of Taylor's music. Hacktone's release of this fourteen track classic has been remixed, remastered and repackaged since its independent release on Taylor's own label, Slow Reality, with three stunning acoustic versions of songs from 1996's Lewis Taylor.
On The Lost Album Taylor sings and plays every note (Taylor worked with long-time co-producer and collaborator Sabina Smyth), painting one epic landscape of atmospheric sounds after another. Electrifying blends of wah wah, electric and acoustic guitars smoothly transition from lonely strumming to screams of roaring passion. Layer upon endless layer of Taylor's haunting tenor are painstakingly laid in intricate doo wop harmonies of oohs and ahhs until you're melting in a cocoon of voices. At times the music ebbs and flows, rocking you in a sumptuous lullaby like the tide. At other times the music broods, simmering before it finally bursts through your speakers with all the fury of a raging sea. From confident key strokes to full-blown jam sessions and innumerable aural detours in between, each song possesses Taylor's trademark series of assured musical transitions that never fail to surprise and delight. In his mastery of vocal techniques, musical arranging, engineering acumen, multi-instrumentation ala Prince and Stevie, Lewis Taylor is a musician's musician.
Music aficionados will call out musical influences by the heaps from The Lost Album. Whereas on Stoned one easily picked-out soul icons aplenty, on Lost Taylor musically mines a different terrain. One hears the 70's rock traditions of Fleetwood Mac and Crosby, Stills and Nash. When he isn't treading through soft rock territory, Taylor is indulging his sweet tooth for the California soul made famous by Brian Wilson's Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas with shades of Rod Temperton thrown in for good measure. In his penchants for the melancholic lyric and over-dubbed arrangement he has much in common with Todd Rudgren and Carole King. Despite the presence of these various influences on the tone and textures of these songs, Taylor proves the ultimate duck and dodge artist -- he never lets the music stay still long enough to tag him with lifting more than an evocation of these greats and rarities. He is never the same artist on any of these songs (and sometimes even within the same song) and yet in his effort to blend so many disparate colors and influences he is always distinctively Lewis Taylor.
Though not a traditional "concept album," from the jarring harpsichord opening on "Listen Here" to the lightly strummed acoustic guitar closing "Track," Lost should be appreciated as a whole project rather than a collection of singles. Even still, one can breathlessly rave about each "hit" song as there isn't a clunker among them. "Leader of the Band" is a playful confection of West Coast soul. The first single, "Hide Your Heart Away," opens as a soulful bar band tune that evolves and expands into a choral tower of voice and electric guitar. "Let's Hope Nobody Finds Us" is a rumpled white sheet encircling long limbs drenched in afterglow. The subtle driving groove on "Yeah" is a motorcycle ride under a midnight sun. Matter-of-fact defiance is given the funky treatment as in "See My Way" and rendered as a cooing yet brittle explanation in "Lucky." Aching reflection may never be as stark naked and painfully experienced as on the stripped down, acoustic versions of "Track" and the brilliantly raw "Song".
Anyone who can listen to vulnerability of "Song" and say that Lewis Taylor's The Lost Album isn't soul has a very narrow definition of the genre, Lewis Taylor included. You see, according to reports this white middle age artist from north London set-out to make the most "un-R&B" album he could in The Lost Album, but ironically enough made one of the most soulful pop albums ever crafted. Never mind that artists like Earth Wind and Fire, Tower of Power, Jimi Hendrix, Nona Hendricks, The Isley Brothers and of course Stevie Wonder had already broadened the parameters of what could quaintly be called r&b or "black music." Taylor's 70's soft rock choices in musical influences on Lost almost universally express the voices and textures of "black music" in some way, which is partially why many of the era's pop and rock artists had such committed African American followings. Thankfully, Taylor may have tried to escape r&b (a Herculean feat for a boy raised on Basie jazz and Stax soul) but found the route a circular one right to the front door of electric soul, producing the most soulful rock album of the year. The fact that Lewis Taylor's The Lost Album, like Stoned before it, has been found by those music lovers in the know is reason for all of us insiders to celebrate. The fact that it and its artist cult status has partially ensured that there won't be more and even better offerings from this artist should serve as a warning and crying shame to us all. Highly recommended.
L. Michael Gipson