Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Otherlands - Lewis Taylor
Hey Guys and Gals,
Hope you're all doing ok. I find myself in Memphis again, at the Otherlands cafe in Midtown to be precise, keeping the rest of the world at arm's length via this glorious medium of the internet. It's been a little while since my last one of these, so I thought I'd do another installment of...
BANDS OR ARTISTS YOU SHOULD KNOW BUT HAVE PROBABLY NEVER HEARD OF...
And today's subject is the curious, enigmatic, mysterious and downright bewildering Lewis Taylor. There's a chance if you were into the blue-eyed soul or nu-soul movement of the 1990's that you may have happened upon his name on some compilation or another, or maybe were even one of the few that bought his self-titled debut record when it came out in 1996. At any rate, I think it's perhaps best we kick off with how I happened to come across his music, as this is an artist you can seemingly only find out about by word of mouth.
The first music of Lewis Taylor that I heard was actually possibly never going to be heard at all. It was an album called The Lost Album, released in the U.S. on the Hacktone label in 2006 that was originally a bunch of re-recorded demos Lewis had originally made for his then label, Island records, in the late 1990's. I instantly appreciated and loved his music, which is probably why my friend Greg Reding from Memphis decided to lay it on me. The album is sun-kissed west coast meets progressive soul-psychedelia (think Brian Wilson-era Beach Boys meets Todd Rundgren at a party at Marvin Gaye's place), and is quite different from his other work on Island and to a certain extent his own releases in the early 2000's, which have one foot very firmly planted in nu-soul (albeit another one in progressive rock). Though, in accordance with the progressive rock taste of Mr Taylor, this record does not shy away from a face-melting guitar solo or two, and even odd time signatures. But it's really Lewis' talent for arrangement (vocals, in particular) and excellent songwriting is at the core of this entire album. Given that Lewis' incomparable presence throughout the record is maybe its sole defining characteristic, and when one takes his other work into account, perhaps he should simply be put in a new genre called Lewis Taylor. Although who says music even needs to be categorised, anyway? Good music is good music, period.
The story of Lewis Taylor is a difficult one to tell, mainly because there is a distinct lack of ready information available on the man himself, and on his music. One has to dig very deep to find any information at all, and very little of it can be classed as 'official'. Having said that, though, this lack of information is chiefly due to the man himself and his apparent wish to erase himself from the music history ledger after his 'retirement' in 2006. What brought this 'retirement' on is a matter of much debate for Lewis' small but rabid fanbase on the internet. There are reports of vocal nodules forcing him to quit after a hamstrung American tour in 2006, where he cancelled more gigs than he played by most accounts. In fact, when one tries to find out what exactly went wrong with Lewis' career, and why we ALL haven't heard of him, the answers are even more elusive. To add to this, the man himself isn't speaking. He even went to the trouble of taking down his old website, removing all videos from youtube, and to this day the appearance and use of his music is carefully monitored and if it is 'in breach of copyright', it very quickly disappears. The only place you can get a hold of his catalog (apart from second hand stores) is through Itunes, or by streaming through Last FM or Pandora or other such sites. This is someone who clearly doesn't want anyone to know anything about him, or not right now at least.
So let's jump to the beginning. Lewis Taylor, according to one source, started to learn music after a car accident in his early 20's which encouraged him to spend his recovery time developing his musical knowledge and talent. Within a few years, he scored a gig as guitarist in the mid 1980's with the Edgar Broughton Band, a progressive rock band that had already been in existence for nearly 20 years by the time he joined. He then released through Chime records in the late 1980's two albums of his own progressive rock-influenced psychedelic material under the pseudonym 'Sheriff Jack', and after further developing his singing voice (apparently the last instrument he claims to have developed in his diverse portfolio), found himself signed to Island records in the mid 1990's based on the strength of demos of his new material alone.
His first record Lewis Taylor was released in 1996 to phenomenal critical acclaim, and soon had many famous and influential tongues wagging (Elton John and David Bowie, amongst others) through the sheer audaciousness of the talent displayed (Lewis plays most or all of the instruments on his recordings) and the smooth soul-like quality of his singing voice, which drew frequent comparisons to honey-voiced artists such as Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye. However, Island records did not seem to know how to handle or properly promote the music of their precociously talented new artist, and an album that was an unprecedented amalgamation of soul, groove-based psychedelica and rock. As a result, despite critics falling over themselves to throw superlatives at the artist and record, sales barely managed to move the needle. Island put out a second record, Lewis II, in 1998, which was enthusiastically received by critics, but unless you were one of the few who buys records based on a good review, you probably never even heard it or knew of its existence, again most likely due to Island's inability to sell their artist to the general public. In Island's defence, however, it must be said that Lewis Taylor is no ordinary pop artist, so they set themselves a challenge to begin with. After submitting demos to Island for the songs that would later become The Lost Album (apparently in response to the label's request he pen more 'commercial' material), he was dropped, and he found himself - quite happily, I imagine - a free agent.
In 2001, he started his own label, Slow Reality, and released two albums in England and Europe, Stoned, Pt 1 in 2002, which was followed by Stoned, Pt 2 in 2004. These records soon gained a small but faithful underground following (thanks in part to his reputation from the previous two albums), and he found his audience slowly growing, through word of mouth and well-received performances in England and Europe. The Lost Album soon followed in 2005 on Slow Reality, but Lewis still remained frustratingly under the radar of mainstream success. Given that critics were prone to gush profusely when Lewis' name was mentioned, it was somewhat inevitable that his music should find an audience in America. With a new label Hacktone releasing Stoned in the U.S. (again to an overwhelmingly positive critical response), and about to release another one (what would be The Lost Album) with some trepidation a short tour was booked for 2006, ostensibly for promotional purposes, starting with a show in New York City at the Bowery bar. This gig has since been described with almost religious-like reverence by those who attended it, and many fans from throughout the U.S. traveled great distances to be there. Lewis himself was stunned by this welcome and recognition from his audience, getting emotional when they sang the words to his songs and responding to requests from the audience that he hadn't even rehearsed with his band (he apparently called out the changes to them as they went - no small feat considering the complexity of his songs). Success and recognition for Lewis Taylor finally seemed only a matter of time.
But it was shortly after that it all started to unravel, and there are all kinds of varying and unconfirmed reports why. The next night, he performed live on 'Late Night with Conan O'Brien', and reportedly tore it up, though no footage of the show is now available on the internet. A date in Atlanta was cancelled and then a following date in Los Angeles (at The Troubadour) was also cancelled. A publicist claimed that Lewis was suffering from vocal 'nodules' and so was unable to perform, and that follow up tour dates would most likely soon be announced. But they never were.
Lewis Taylor slid back into his own private world and publicly announced his 'retirement' via his now shut-down website, and has not released anything since. Rumours abound that he has been working on new material, and perhaps we shall soon new Lewis Taylor music, but nothing has yet surfaced. Despite seemingly attempting to wipe his own musical existence off the map, you can still buy Lewis Taylor on Itunes (simply do a search and he'll come up), and in respect for his apparent wishes that no illegal or copyright infringing use of his music pervades the internet, I recommend you simply buy it. You won't regret it, and who knows, it may encourage him to come out from the shadows again.
I would recommend starting with The Lost Album, then Stoned, and find your way from there. For those curious, you can stream two non-downloadable promo interviews and live performance radio shows recorded on Lewis's 2006 tour here on KCRW and here on NPR.
Lewis Taylor - 1996, Island Records
Lewis II - 1998, Island Records
Stoned, Pt 1 - 2002, Slow Reality (U.K.)
Stoned, Pt 2 - 2004, Slow Reality (U.K.)
Stoned - 2004, Hacktone (U.S.)
The Lost Album - 2005, Slow Reality (U.K); 2006, Hacktone (U.S)
as Sheriff Jack
Laugh Yourself Awake - 1986, Chime
What Lovely Melodies! - 1987, Chime