Land of Doubt
Reviewed by Doug Freeman, Fri., Aug. 11, 2017
A tentative delicateness to Sam Baker's singing and songwriting defined his first four albums, masterworks of character-driven narrative hinging on the subtlest details. They etched Grace in the daily toil, Mercy in the mundane. Both micro and macro revelations thread the Austinite's work since that latter 2004 debut, catching in his hushed, halting vocal delivery, each word a struggle seeking its own purpose as if expression alone might excavate waiting redemption. Baker's own journey hovers unavoidably behind all his work: recovery from a near-death terrorist attack as a young man in Peru, in which he's brought back to life with shattered hearing, a crippled left hand, and a palpable sense of wonder and appreciation for life that's matured into high-pitch awareness. Baker's songs carry with them an intrinsic need to be sung, this world of horror and beauty too much to bear alone. Fifth disc Land of Doubt arrives four years after Say Grace garnered the local troubadour overdue national acclaim, and in working with Nashville producer Neilson Hubbard, he again finds room to breathe in unhurried arrangements. Instrumental interludes act as moments of reflection throughout the album, but the atmospheric tone set between Will Kimbrough's haunting sustains and Don Mitchell's trumpet take shape around Baker's stiff vocals. Opening scene setter "Summer Wind" blooms contemplative Southwestern noir, doubt closing in at the edges of its author's search for salvation. Love drifts away ("Leave," "Peace Out") as characters fight internally to express their fears ("Same Kind of Blue," "Say the Right Words"), yet the quiet moments of grace spread as well ("Margaret," "Love Is Patient"). Mary Gauthier co-wrote ragged junkie lullaby "Moses in the Reeds," but the titular closer expands Baker's sound with an even darker, jazz-infused border chant. Land of Doubt stakes Sam Baker a space to expand and linger in his world of worry and wonder.