A quivering, deep and husky voice built to vibrate heartstrings. Lyrics that aim to be highly visual and narrative, where relatable characters and metaphors abound are evident on Dan Baker’s album Counting Paces in Tortoise Races. On “Mrs. Carter,” the narrator takes a look back to a time when innocence and paradise were lost. Likewise, Dan Baker is an artist who goes through hell to get to heaven, penning songs of full throated desperation along the way. Whether shivering in the cold outdoors on hitchhiker blues anthem “There Is No Road,” or transforming into a jealous fox on folk-stomper “The Fox And The Sparrow” (reminiscent of The Revivalists at their best), Baker displays the ability to inhabit characters and tell stories from across the spectrum.
Baker’s strength lies in his lyrics and his command of them as a singer, getting the emotion across sometimes dense prose. This ability to get complex thought across is admirable, though I wouldn’t say the message is easily digestible. It will take more than one listen to understand the narrative, perspective and scope of his stories. The musical elements are more easily appreciated on first blush. Baker elevates singer/songwriter progressions with clever arrangements that can incorporate melodic finger-style sections, lush horns and even choral harmony that imbue his colorful acoustic guitar arrangements with additional power and dignity. “Ode To Espy” is a very traditional tune that feels downright fantastic with a simple backdrop of medieval choral harmonies.
The two tracks that follow, “The Wilderness” and “Forget Your Mother,” dive into a more contemporary folk territory of Bon Iver or Damien Rice. Already a successful radio single in Baker’s native Australia, “The Wilderness” is a meditation on trading a blissful complacency for a call to action. The first half features fluorescent electric guitar melodies over a simple acoustic guitar figure before cymbals swells and Baker’s sorrowful falsetto lead to a damnable drumbeat and lyrics about “turning feet into hooves” and killing kings. It is an enthralling blend of the modern and the ancient and a showcase of Baker’s skill as a writer and producer. Closing track “Neon Wine” captures this same energy in a more subdued package. Here, Baker goes from falsetto to an aggressive growl and back to areflective quiver, the progression of love to loss in a verse and a chorus.
While some listeners may find difficulty in parsing Baker’s dense lyrics out of his emotional delivery and strong accent, I would suggest to them to listen closer. Baker is a rare talent with a sound that is equal parts grounded and mystical. Counting Paces In Tortoise Races is a great example of an album that while not overtly conceptual or planned as a unified narrative, contains songs connected on a deeper level through their honesty, integrity, melancholy, and thorough exposition. The listener is transferred to a world of Baker’s own creation, populated with colorful characters whose tragic and triumphant stories will stay with you for many years to come.
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