Reviewed by Doug Freeman, Fri., Aug. 28, 2009
Sam Baker's is a hard-hewn grace, transcendentally wrought with grit, brutally chiaroscuroed by a weary deliverance sought in common lives. If the local songwriter's first album, 2004's Mercy, grasped for a deeper understanding of the dark tragedies beyond our control – a return to the Peruvian train rent by a bomb that nearly killed him in 1986 – then Pretty World (2007) was its reconciliation, a turn outward with grateful eyes renewed by contemplation. Persistent in Baker's vision is an empathetic evocation of treading life's stilled waters, beauty welled in the dirt of daily endurance. His characters, drawn with the insight of Townes Van Zandt and John Prine, toil unglamorously, overlooked save for Baker's rough, sing-talk psalms giving them fitting voice. Cotton likewise finds its muse on the outskirts: the Mexican immigrant of "Mennonite," the roadside pleads of "Signs," the girl, tired and worried yet calmly knowing, in "Not Another Mary." These tales labor under the heavily shouldered harness of history, Baker's Texas a parabolic culmination of inescapable genealogies, from the tent revivals of twin tracks "Palestine I" and "Palestine II" to the handcrafted inevitability of "Bridal Chest." His familiar intertwining of traditional fare roots the tales with inescapable inheritances, the album's opening strains of "Dixie" breaking upon the title track's grounded blues as female voices rise against Baker's hard drawl. Cotton's biggest shift is the fuller accompaniment that empowers Baker's ballads, especially Steve Conn's piano and the electric guitar growl of "Palestine I," but his poignancy emerges best in the soft lullaby of "Moon" and unshakable loss of "Angel Hair." Closing with the thematic counterpoint to the toil of "Cotton," "Snow" finally gestures toward a momentary redemption in patient penitence, a complete, if fleeting, renewal: "First light city streets are white pristine. They are waiting."