Sam Baker – Land of Doubt
Self Released – 16 June 2017
For those not conversant with Sam Baker, in 1986 he was severely injured during the terrorist bombing of a train in Peru, leaving him partly deaf, his hand and leg mangled and suffering brain damage affecting his speech and memory. Teaching himself to play guitar left-handed, he began making music and, in 2004 he released the first of a trilogy documenting his experiences of the attack and his recovery by way of both personal and fictional songs.
Land of Doubt is his fifth album, the follow-up to 2013’s Say Grace, and, while working in Nashville for the first time under producer Neilson Hubbard and using jazz trumpeter Don Mitchell and Will Kimbrough on guitars, marks no great departure from his established style of writing and delivery.
Lyrically it remains often dark with streaks of light, a description that pretty much also applies to the sparse, cinematic music, opening in typically stark, pared-down form with Summer Wind, a narrated number with a detuned trumpet that’s so parched you’ll need a glass of water on hand to listen without dehydrating. Same Kind of Blue is a relatively more uptempo number, a steady slow march beat bolstering the story of a young kid named Charlie who, in 1968, enlisted and was sent off to Vietnam to fight, ironically, an enemy nicknamed Charlie, and goes on to detail his difficulty in adjusting to his return home, the song essentially about how veterans get to feel so alive when faced with death, that peacetime is an even bigger war to wage.
It’s followed by The Silvered Moon, the first of five short chamber interludes (variously featuring piano, harmonium, trumpet and cello) that bridge the songs , picking back up with Margaret, a melodically simple, rather lovely paean to the real but unidentified lady of the title who sounds like music when she laughs. Matters of the heart also inform the self-explanatory Love Is Patient with its sweeping strings-arrangement finale and Leave, a cello-soothed song of betrayal, weeping cracked hurt as he sings “you have squandered my trust you may not stay please go.”
Two interludes provide time to compose your emotions again before the five minute story song The Feast of Saint Valentine, its anthemic swell evoking the bruised romanticism of Tom Waits. Next up is the album’s only co-written song, Baker linking with Mary Gauthier for the swampy Moses In The Reeds, spoken over crisp snare and steady slow march beat with the nursery rhyme-like melody an ironic counterpointing to its boondocks trash single mother addiction/abuse-themed lyrics.
Another emotional hard-hitter is Say The Right Words, Mitchell’s mournful jazz trumpet effectively colouring a piano-arranged song, waltzing chorus about parents preparing to bid a loving farewell to their daughter as she prepares to wed, despite their disapproval of her future husband.
Following the cello and violin interlude The Sunken City Rises, there’s the intricate acoustic fingerwork and piano melody of the spoken Peace Out, a break up with the minimum of pain (“it doesn’t hurt to bad cause she does it so slow”). This is followed in turn by the longest instrumental piece, the piano and strings arranged Where Angels Dwell, before ending with the brooding, tense, raspingly sung, title track which, with its dry percussion and spooked serpent dance rhythm and greasy neon-washed trumpet, sounds a resonant state of the nation note with its beauty and its scars.
His last release was declared one of the ten best Americana albums of 2013. This should repeat the feat for 2017.
Photo by T. Yancer