Sam Baker appeared seemingly from nowhere around 2007 with an album, pretty world that just about devastated everyone who heard it. There had been a bit of a buzz about him after Gurf Morlix had handed Bob Harris a copy of Baker’s debut, mercy a short while earlier. For fans of well worn Texan tales there was a new kid on the block except this kid was middle aged, bruised and battered with a back story that astonished and a sense of humility that was in itself humbling for all who encountered him live or on disc. Having survived a terrorist bomb in Peru in 1986 Baker had been mangled and his road to recovery and eventually to recording informed and suffused his songs and there was universal agreement that he was a worthy successor to the likes of John Prine and Townes Van Zandt.
say grace is his fourth album and it’s safe to say that it’s as good as his first three and it’s tempting to say that its actually better. His bare melodies have been draped in some fine arrangements, more so than on pretty world and cotton and thankfully they have survived and even benefited from being dressed in their Sunday best. While there are still stark moments (with The Tattooed Woman and Migrants standing out) and the mood remains sombre throughout there is a richness and depth here that surpasses the earlier releases. In the meantime his unique voice continues to sound vulnerable, hurt and passionate, tugging at the emotions.
Baker paints portraits of characters for whom bad luck and trouble is a way of life as an old woman sees her mother in the mirror (Say Grace) and Mexican migrants are left to rot in the desert (Migrants). The worker in Ditch complains bitterly
“the crew’s a bunch of stoners, the boss is a shit, be a miracle if one of us does not get hit by a ton of pipe on a cheap ass chain swinging round the sky in this pouring ass rain”
but Baker allows these folk some ways out of their despair in the shape of either sex or religion. Isn’t Love Great tells the tale of a pair of unlikely lovers who are pillars of the community but who have kinky sex while Button by Button is a unlikely Romany tinged companion to Randy Newman’s You Can keep Your Hat On.
When these worlds collide as on Feast (where a deacon has what seems to be a wet dream) it inspires confusion and rapture, both captured on the song by stabs of angry guitar and a heavenly chorus. One can imagine Sweet Hour of Prayer by which follows being whispered urgently by the confused deacon but here Baker hands the vocals over to Chris Baker-Davies and Raina Rose for this devotional song which features some excellent piano from Steve Conn. Baker closes the album with another prayer, Go In Peace which resonates with his own life story. These last two songs were not written by Baker but presumably their faith and hope reflects that of his own, a faith and hope that has allowed him to triumph from adversity. One of the best albums we’ve heard this year.
Sam Baker is appearing at Glasgow Americana at St Andrew’s In The Square on Thursday 5th September. He always sells out so grab a ticket fast.