The inscription inside the gate fold CD case says it all - "How beautiful are these days."
This album is, from top to bottom, simply beautiful.
And I make no mistake in using the word 'simply'. No flourishes, no trills, no fancy packaging, no pretension, no superfluous production or excess. This is just great music...as simple as that.
There are no honeyed vocals here but, in this case, that is part of the appeal. Baker's voice is something akin to Tom Waits-lite (I do not mean this in any derogatory sense...quite the opposite. His voice has the depth and expressiveness of Tom Waits but, certainly for me, is a great deal more listenable!). He has also been likened to Townes Van Zandt and John Prine...accolades if ever there were any! This is a voice ravaged by the lessons life has taught; someone who has come through the other side to share with us the beauty the world has to offer.
In grizzled tones, Baker sings over a wonderfully sparse backing, at times talking more than singing. An understated offering...but one that has been calculated to perfection.
Upon first listen, there might appear to be a sense of melancholy to the whole affair. But listen more deeply. These are the tales of someone who is glad to be alive; his appreciation of, his joy in, all the little things that so many of us take for granted. It is the rasp of survival...a man that has dusted himself down and learnt to live for every new day. Yet it is not our usual hackneyed story of drug addiction and exorbitance. Baker, in 1986, lived through a terrorist bombing on a train in Peru, only just escaping with his life, deafened in one ear, partially deafened in the other, and having to endure some 17 reconstructive surgeries (never mind 'smaller' accomplishments such as having to learn to play guitar left-handed!).
"a bomb concealed in a suitcase ripped through the roof of a packed train that was carrying tourists to the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu. Seven passengers were killed, including one American and three West Germans. As many as 40 other people were injured." (Time.com) or New York Times.
This experience is written all over Baker's work - in an uplifting, not maudlin, way. The storytelling here is consummate, yet the lyrical content economical; there seem to be no unnecessary words, and each song tells its story both succinctly and charmingly. We hear of a woman gambling in Reno, a brothel customer, the son of an oil-rich man, a psychic and, in 'Boxes', a woman searching memories of old Valentine's cards and a letter telling her that her husband will not be returning from war. It is the small details, the things so frequently overlooked, that make these stories so real, the "pigs feet jar" (Juarez), the "one red rose, it glistens in the sun" (Sweetly Undone), "cold Mexican beer" (Days).
The very simplicity is touching; sentiments that could, if offered in a more polished timbre, seem cloying, here are the epitome of rapture:
"Before the sun
Before the heat
Before the heat
Before we untangle from our sheets
Before this summer day unfurls
Pretty world" (Pretty World)
"You've got a book on Africa
I've got Twain
Lay down and rest
Lay down in the sun
Lay down with your top
Sweetly undone". (Sweetly Undone)
For me, the beauty of this album only grows the more I listen to it. It is a great album, not just a great collection of songs. The landscapes can be stark, but are never barren...and they speak of both solitude and love.
The album also features Walt Wilkins (making his name on the Texas red dirt scene with The Mystiqueros) and the sweet vocal additions (contrasting with Baker's own sublimely on 'Odessa') of Chris Baker-Davies.
It's a keeper!
High points: Sweetly Undone (my personal favourite), Pretty World, Broken Fingers, Odessa, Boxes.
You can listen to snippets (and buy the album) here.