by Hobey Echlin
The latest addition to the Portishead-Everything But the Girl school of moody pop acts featuring a female singer over dressed-up dance beats, Baxter has at least been forward-thinking enough to venture into the next-school rhythms of drum 'n' bass with its aching torch songs on the group's eponymous American debut. While it's obvious the Baxes are new to the skittish d 'n' b sounds -- the members' previous efforts were straight-ahead pop -- producer Carl-Michael Herlofsson does an admirable job here of keeping the tracks spare enough to let the songs and sentiments smolder up through the off-kilter rhythms. Like a heartbroken Yma Sumac, singer Nina Ramsby always seems a sixteenth note behind, dazed as much by the realistic improbability as the possible outcome of last-call couplets like "I need a friend to take me home again, I need to make it true. ... " While her lyrical territory -- all autumnal melancholy and empty glass wish-lists -- has been more capably-if-thoroughly trodded by the likes of EBTG's Tracy Thorne and Portishead's Beth Gibbons, producer Herloffson has done well to give Ramsby the room she needs to convince the listeners of her plight(s).
On "Possible," the combination of Ramsby's spacey vocal delivery and multi-instrumentalist Ricky Tillblad's wind-chilled guitar line sounds like Joy Division covering "Girl from Ipanema" -- the spectral, skeletal drum 'n' bass beat's syncopation only adds to the chilly dislocation. Likewise, "Political" turns the Public Enemy beat of Madonna's "Justify My Love" into the fractured funk of a dubbed-out Gang of Four, melodica and all, under Ramsby's jittery declaration: "I'll take care of everything ... you will see."
But Baxter is most convincing when heading back into sad pop territory that neither depends on the players' new knowledge of drum 'n' bass, nor their flirtation with hip-hop samples. Baxter's best track, "Ballad of Behaviour," showcases Ramsby at her woozy torch-singer best, delivering an effortless melody of lines like "seems that I need you, seems that I do/seems like I'd call you/seems like I will wait for the right way to tell you how I feel" over lazy, jazzy guitar and place-marker bass bumps.
The end result is as much a pure pop triumph for the Baxes as proof of how effectively they can doll up smoky clichés with the skittering majesty of drum 'n' bass. A Pyrrhic victory.