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Sam Baker: Horses and Stars

review sam baker x1 cong

This is one of the most remarkable albums we’ve had in some time. Baker half sings and half talks and plays gentle electric guitar, but his songs tell a powerful story of normal folk and it has a real power. He looks like a beardless Kris Kristofferson, comes from Texas and has a gravelly but warm voice.

He’s got an unusual back story. In 1986, he was on a trip to Machu Picchu when a bomb planted by the Shining Path guerrilla group exploded in his train carriage, killing the family he was talking to. The bomb severed the main artery and vein in Baker’s left thigh. He suffered brain damage, kidney failure and severe hearing loss. An operation in a local hospital saved his life, but his hands were mangled and he still has tinnitus. All this gives him a good perspective: life is short, death is long and a life unfulfilled is tragic.

Opener Boxes starts by discussing the contents of a woman’s trunk, which tell a sad story: along with memories of her kids growing up there are Valentine’s card saying “I love you” and memories of a wedding and its cliched offerings: a hat (sum’ing borrowed) bible (sum’ing old), bridal veil (sum’ing new) and a letter — the sum’ing (it’s how he talks!) blue, telling the bride that her husband had been killed in action.

Thursday is about a young mother struggling to cope “It’s a Thursday morning / She feels all alone / Got a hole inside / Like a country song”. She starts to cry when one of the kids says: “Daddy gone.”

Iron is a standout, about a guy who drinks too much and otherwise is not a good husband (his wife excuses him with “he only gets mean when he gets in his drink”) until he crashes his truck, has a glimpse of the eternal and becomes a changed man.

Migrants is about 14 migrants who die in the desert but only get 12 lines of news in a local paper, in among the small ads and adverts for shoes. Mennonite is about a migrant who falls in love with a rum woman in a bar; she drinks beer in quarts, makes out in cars and has red boots to her knees and “short, short skirts”; the song asks whether love is about “horses and stars” or a quickie in the back of a car … after five years they’re still together and happy “and it never was hard”.

Same Kind Of Blue is about a shy young man called Charlie who goes to Vietnam in ‘68, and gets sent down the famous tunnels to root out fighters, the first chorus being the inevitable “Charlie fighting Charlie / Trying to survive”, after which he gets PTSD and sits drinking with a WW2 veteran — both have the “same kind of blue”.

We found an interview with Baker in which he said he was driven to make sense of why his life was spared and why the boy he was talking with died on the train. We once met someone who fell off a mountain: her friend was killed but she survived, her memory being of rolling down in synchronicity with a bouncing boulder that would have crushed her to death. Each time she rolled face up, the boulder was over her head. She worried she had been spared for a reason but had done nothing; at least Baker is doing sum’ing.

Of his attention to detail in songs, Baker says: “The big things in my life have encouraged me to look at the small things. The big things, I can’t seem to get a handle on, but the little things I can.”

For fans of classical storytelling, and people who think Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah is not quite powerful enough or find Springsteen superficial.


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