“Horses and Stars” – Sam Baker

4 stars (out of 5)

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I guess this is one that was inevitable; a live album that was recorded almost by accident, just because they could, and what an interesting piece of work it is. Unusually, this didn’t grab the attention at the first listen and it wasn’t a grower. On about the fourth listen, the power of the lyrics suddenly hit home and everything started to fit together. Sam Baker’s songs are self-contained stories, told with perfect economy; there isn’t a superfluous word as he tells us about the kind of people we’re all surrounded by, whether we know it or not; the single mothers, the alcoholics, the drug addicts, the widows and the guilt-ridden all doing their best to make it through another day. It’s the life of a small Texas town told in twelve small but perfectly-formed chapters.

The delivery as a live performance matches up perfectly with the stark subject matter. Sam Baker relates the tales in a sung-spoken style that has hints of Tom Waits and an interesting minimalist picked electric guitar style (more about that later), plus a wooden block to tap out the tempo with a foot. It works perfectly because the stark arrangement focusses all the attention on the power of Sam’s writing and the stories of despair and injustice but, ultimately, hope.

Back to that thing about the guitar style. After surviving a terrorist bombing of a train in Peru, which nearly ended his life, Sam’s long and painful recovery eventually led to using his music as a therapy, which included learning to play an upside-down guitar to adjust to the loss of a large part of his left hand. The playing style he’s developed strips all of the arrangements back to basics, shining a spotlight on the beating, bleeding heart of each of the songs.

Highlights? “Mennonite” is a poignant story of an unlikely relationship and forms the centrepiece of the album, “Boxes” is a heart-rending tale of a Vietnam widow and “Odessa” deals with the tragic fallout from a spoilt, entitled upbringing. Seriously though, it’s all good and you get the chance to hear it live in the UK early next year.

“Horses and Stars” is released in the UK on Friday August 23rd.