Music Reviews
4:29 pm
Tue August 27, 2013

Sam Baker's 'Say Grace' Is At Once Beautiful And Broken

Originally published on Tue August 27, 2013 5:31 pm

Sam Baker has a backstory that must be told. In 1986, at age 31, he was traveling by train in Peru when a bomb from the terrorist group Shining Path exploded right next to him. The little girl he'd been talking to was killed along with half a dozen others, and his own injuries required 18 operations. His mangled left hand was rebuilt; work on his ears left him with a loud ringing that never stops, though Baker says he's made his peace with it.

Baker had worked as a bank examiner in West Texas and a whitewater boatman all over, and wrote songs he now dismisses as "cliché-driven, overly emotive stuff." The bank rehired him after his catastrophe, an act of faith he says ultimately inspired a song called "Ditch" on his latest album, Say Grace. It's his fourth album since he started making them in 2004, when he turned 50.

Baker's music is simultaneously beautiful and broken, like cracked crockery. His voice barely sketches the simple melodies, and the guitar is marked by the hesitations of someone who relearned the instrument left-handed. But Baker often decorates by quotation — from old hymns or Stephen Foster or, on Say Grace, Emily Dickinson and William Butler Yeats. And he surrounds himself with sidemen who delight in complementing his broken quality. "Feast" showcases a Yeats image as the musicians venture off into the kind of unknown Sam Baker has made it his life's work to transfigure.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Austin singer-songwriter Sam Baker was 50 when he started making albums in 2004. Now, he's just released his fourth album titled "Say Grace." Critic Robert Christgau thinks Baker is an artist worth waiting for.

ROBERT CHRISTGAU, BYLINE: In 1986, aged 31, Sam Baker was traveling by train in Peru when a bomb from the terrorist group Shining Path exploded right next to him. The little girl he'd been talking to was killed along with half a dozen others, and his own injuries required 18 operations. His mangled left hand was rebuilt, and work on his ears left him with a loud ringing that never stops, although Baker says he's made his peace with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO IN PEACE")

SAM BAKER: (Singing) Go in peace. Go in kindness. Go in love. Go in faith. Leave the day, the day behind us. Day is done. Go in grace. Let us go into the dark. Not afraid, not alone. Let us hope back some good pleasure safely to arrive at home.

CHRISTGAU: Baker had worked as a bank examiner in West Texas and a whitewater boatman all over and wrote songs he now dismisses as cliche-driven, overly emotive stuff. The bank rehired him after his catastrophe, an act of faith he says ultimately inspired a song called "Ditch" on his fourth album "Say Grace."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DITCH")

BAKER: (Singing) I'm crawling back down in the ditch today. I got a crazy-ass wife, got a baby on the way. I'm glad I got work. I'm glad I got pay. I'm crawling back down in the ditch today.

CHRISTGAU: Baker's self-financed music isn't usually so full of juice. He specializes in compassionate local-color portraits, including quite a few female divorcees -not tragic figures, they get by - but constrained by fate. Here's how he renders the unnamed protagonist of "Say Grace's" title track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY GRACE")

BAKER: (Singing) She was almost out of high school when she left home, got a job in an office. She answered the phone. Her boss was a creep he wouldn't leave her alone. She had to go. Middle of that mess she met a fine young man. They rolled into Houston in a Chevrolet van, Louisiana tags, a beautiful band of gold. They carried each other so long, but they drifted apart never really went wrong. They just married too young. Both moved along. C'iest la vi.

CHRISTGAU: Baker's music is simultaneously beautiful and broken, like cracked crockery. The voice barely sketches the simple melodies, and the guitar is marked by the hesitations of someone who relearned the instrument left-handed. But Baker often decorates by quotation - from old hymns or Stephen Foster or on "Say Grace" Emily Dickinson and William Butler Yeats. And he surrounds himself with sidemen who delight in complementing his broken quality.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEAST")

BAKER: (Singing) What rough beast? There are mega blessings, a golden fleece, a golden fleece.

BLOCK: We're listening to the new album from Sam Baker. It's titled "Say Grace." Our reviewer is Robert Christgau.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEAST")

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.