“Land of Doubt” – Sam Baker

4 stars (out of 5)

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Sam Baker Land of Doubt ScrollerStraight up front, you need to know; this album won’t be for everyone. I have a strong suspicion that this is deep into Marmite territory, that it’s an acquired taste. Texan Sam Baker is one of those songwriters who is revered by his peers (Malcolm Holcombe’s another) who understand the journey he’s on and appreciate the craft involved in his work. One of his aims with “Land of Doubt” is to tell the stories or convey the feelings to his listeners in the most economic way possible without losing any of the nuances. Stripping back music usually involves leaving out instruments that add texture to arrangements, keys, horns, even electric guitar and bass. The approach Sam Baker has taken is to work out the minimum of sounds necessary to create the feeling he wants to evoke and to add nothing extraneous to it.

The economy isn’t just applied to the instrumentation. The melodies and the rhythms are kept sparse and simple and even the number of words is restricted, a bit like applying the haiku discipline to every aspect of making an album. Producer and drummer Neilson Hubbard, guitar player Will Kimbrough and cool jazz trumpeter Don Mitchell create perfect minimalist arrangements that allow the songs plenty of space; each of the elements is honed to perfection like a setting designed to emphasise a perfect gemstone, but not to overpower. There isn’t a hint of a standard format or template here. Each song gets exactly the instrumentation it needs; nothing more, nothing less. The percussion ranges from the almost non-existent on the country waltz “Love is Patient” to loud drums competing with the vocal on the swampy “Moses in the Reeds” and the military beat of “Some Kind of Blue”, telling the story of a Vietnam veteran who looks back to the war as the happiest time of his life.

At first glance, the track listing seems a little long, but ten songs are interspersed with five instrumental interludes that help to alleviate the sombre mood of the songs while additional colour and texture come in the form of Will Kimbrough’s ambient atmospherics, some piano and harmonium and some deft Chet Baker-style trumpet from Don Mitchell, particularly on “Say the Right Words”, the story of parents who disapprove of their daughter’s choice of partner but are too scared or smart (you decide) to tackle the matter head-on. One of Sam Baker’s strengths is in picking out these little tragedies from the background noise we’re surrounded and showing us the importance they have to the protagonists. It’s not always comfortable, but you can’t stop listening.

As I said at the top of this piece, it won’t be for everyone, but if you like the craft of the songwriter and the arranger, then you won’t be disappointed.

“Land of Doubt” is released on Friday June 16.