Sam Baker

Some artists — Sam Baker, for instance — don't let limited vocal ability keep them from making amazing records. Baker sings about the same way he talks, in a halting stutter like he's not always sure he's saying the right word. But like any true artist, Baker makes the most of his gifts. His songs are so organic, and the damaged people in them so ordinary, they could have just sprouted right through the dust of some windswept, half-forgotten West Texas town like Wink, Seminole or Dumas. The surreal "Juarez" and chilling "Odessa" demonstrate Baker's gift for minimalist yet gritty storytelling, while tunes like "Sweetly Undone," "Days" and "Broken Fingers" show an exacting eye for the small details that glue families and lovers together. Like the lyrics, the arrangements are sparse yet complicated, and producers Walt Wilkins and Tim Lorsch have done a stellar job of keeping the racket down and letting the songs stand out. Pretty World should be sitting pretty when the best-of lists roll out in December, because for Americana, this is as good as it gets.

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William Michael Smith