From the opening line, “I’ve got a pistol in my pocket so don’t you fucking move and don’t you say a word,” you know that you’re not in for a smooth ride with Dan Baker. His delivery, a tortuous wail (that the unkind might call tuneless) adds to the sense of menace. In two minutes Baker paints a picture of a hold up in a liquor store with spare brush strokes. The remaining words are “put the money in the bag, get down on the floor” with the response “Don’t shoot, please don’t shoot.” Story over. With a delicate acoustic guitar intro before drums crash in and a piano takes up the threadbare melody the song hums with danger. A great start with more to follow.
Baker is from New England and Pistol In My Pocket is his third album. Recorded live in an old Masonic Temple converted into a recording studio the sound is harsh and vibrant giving his skeletal blues wails the sense of urgency that Tom Waits achieved on Mule Variations while Baker’s voice makes full use of the 60 foot vaulted ceiling reverb sounding like a man who is howling with the ghost of electricity. His band (Rob Flax, violin, Chris Enright, keyboards, Karl Grohmann, percussion and Alan Uhler, double bass) handle the frenetic workouts and the gentler numbers with equal aplomb while Baker’s guitar can scream or caress as required. Threw Me Down the Well recalls The Bad Seeds and The Violent Femmes in its dark procession describing the dark deed of the title while What I’m Looking For is a Waits like grotesquerie with some stompingly good guitar work. Baker and the band’s triumph however is the superb Down In the Canyon, a song that follows the topography of Calexico, Morricone and Hazlewood with a script from Cormac McCarthy. Beautifully paced, the excellent percussion, guitar, keyboards and violin coalesce into a shimmering whole that is breathtaking.
Aside from the full frontal attack Baker proves himself a dab hand at the more introspective songwriter model with the band switching into simpatico mode. Never Alone nods to the melody of The Battle Cry of Freedom as Baker declares his freedom from a straight jacketed home. Up On The Roof employs the studio’s echo to convey a sense of space as Baker, supported by piano and bass, sounds like the last person on earth looking down and asking for an Amen to his Hallelujah. One Of Them sounds like a disembodied John Prine while Coming Home is a majestic ballad that weaves together elements of John Murry’s wounded grandeur and Van Morrison’s early impressionistic portraits as the protagonist waits and waits. Fine stuff indeed.