Despite being a somewhat enigmatic figure, Sam Baker seems to pursue a deliberately downtrodden stance with this, his latest effort, the reverential "Say Grace." In truth, Baker's always possessed a Zen-like reverence; nearly killed in a train bombing in Peru in 1986, he developed the discipline needed to disperse his demons and ease himself towards recovery. In 2004, he released his first album, aptly entitled "Mercy." That was followed by "Pretty World" in 2007 and "Cotton" two years later. Sparse and sobering, they offered insights into Baker's spiritual psyche and his meditative mantra.
"Say Grace," on the other hand, mostly brings to mind John Prine, what with its frayed edges and homespun sentiment. It's a set of songs that take an intimate perspective, whether it's the tear-stained tale that informs the title track, the heartbreaking rumination of Road Crew or the odd attraction that binds the mismatched couple in Isn't Love Great. Here again, Baker tempers his tunes with only the barest accoutrements - forlorn vocals, acoustic guitar, some stately piano and, in a few specific places, a flourish of muted horns. Still, Baker's restraint only goes so far. On songs like Feast and Button By Bottom, he takes a turn towards Tom Waits, with an implied chaos and cacophony that threaten to undermine the mellower mood overall.
Still, nothing can upset the soothing sensibilities that Baker embraces, or the sense that the hapless characters that populate this songs aren't unlike the people we know in everyday life - our friends, our relatives, our neighbors and perhaps even ourselves. That may be Baker's greatest gift, the ability to inspire empathy for, and understanding of, individuals grounded in unsettled circumstance. Baker is a chronicler of the everyman, and he plies his craft with an insight and understanding that, in literary terms, would translate to a work by a Steinbeck or Twain. A striking example of poetry with a purpose, "Say Grace" seems something of a blessing.