Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Sam Baker

  • Mercy [Music Road, 2004] B+
  • Pretty World [Music Road, 2007] A-
  • Cotton [Music Road, 2009] *
  • Say Grace [self-released, 2013] A-
  • Land of Doubt [self-released, 2017] **

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Mercy [Music Road, 2004]
He's an Austin-based singer-songwriter who'll be coming back for the rest of his life from near-death in a 1986 Shining Path bombing. Deafer than not, he also relearned guitar with his left hand, so it would be presumptuous in the extreme to dismiss his quiet, putatively unfinished music as any kind of affectation--John Prine imitator, some might say. Around the middle, the mercy here risks bathos because the sad mood is so unvarying, but soon it rights itself. My two favorites honor marriages, one ended in its natural time by death, the other saved before it's too late by near-death. I also recommend the quiet antiwar tract where the husband gets a kiss for bringing his wife a Coke at the Little League game. And the one about Peru. B+

Pretty World [Music Road, 2007]
A lot of songs get sung on this record--"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Jacob's Ladder," Stephen Foster's "Hard Times" and Townes Van Zandt's "Waiting Around to Die," and only on that last one does Baker decline to borrow the melody for a spell, thus taking some of the pressure off his own. He leaves Texas to consult a Pakistani psychic on the Lower East side. He chronicles a rich kid who gets away with killing a girl in an auto accident he spends the rest of his life drinking about. He relives Macu Picchu once again. And in crucial songs of thanks, he watches his beloved undo her top and needs two languages to celebrate a Christmas calmer than Robert Earl Keen's and happier than anything James McMurtry's likely to tell the world about. A-

Cotton [Music Road, 2009]
Some hard times come again, others never leave ("Palestine II," "Cotton"). *

Say Grace [self-released, 2013]
"Say Grace" itself leads, as well-limned a miniature as he's ever recorded, and he's got a bunch: one of many divorcees he's paid his respects, this one's better off than the orphan who's not an orphan on Pretty World, to say nothing of "Migrants"'s 14 dead with 12 lines in the paper to show for it. But still--there's a hole in her robe, she falls asleep to the TV, and she still hears her mother saying "don't give me that face any more." Baker's voice is no prettier, but his music is less rough-hewn--here cello, brushes, and Leonard Cohen harmonies, there Gurf Morlix's blues-tango guitar. And the literary ambitions are out front--the way "feast" rhymes with "rough beast," the Emily Dickinson quote he sneaks into "Road Crew," the Jimmy Cagney mythos that falls flat as such ideas sometimes do. The third-happiest song is "Ditch": "My crazy-ass wife/nutty as her brother/supposed to marry rich/according to her mother." Second-happiest is "Isn't Love Grand," about a gimpy schoolteacher and her fat husband wearing fishnet and leather when the boys are off at his mother's. The happiest is "Button by Button." Baker does literally believe it's a gift from God when a woman takes off her clothes. A-

Land of Doubt [self-released, 2017]
Spare, expressionistic songster teeters across the impossible tightrope between the lugubrious and the wrenching ("Same Kind of Blues," "Moses in the Reeds," "The Feast of St. Valentine") **