Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Sam Baker, Peter Himmelman

Sam Baker, Pretty World

When Sam Baker was in his early thirties, a terrorist bomb blew up the train he was riding in Peru. Eight died in the attack. Among many other injuries, Baker lost all hearing in one ear and partial hearing in the other. Because of this disability, his gravelly, blurred singing sounds very odd, even disturbing at first. But a couple of songs into his marvelous new CD you begin to appreciate the contrast between the ragged, pained sound of his voice and the bright arc of his talent.

The songs are so simply structured they seem naked, and the spare poetry of the lyrics quietly chafes your sensibility until you have to spin back and listen again. Baker sings of the American fringe: a prostitute, an orphan, a gambler, an oilman's ne'er-do-well son, "a woman who puts things in boxes." Using spindly folk idioms and few but choice words, Baker brings his characters to life like the best of Springsteen's creations, or like those of a short story writer such as Raymond Carver.

A few of the songs paint pictures rather than tells tales, but again sparely, with an almost haiku-like feel. In "Sweetly Undone," a man appreciates his lover: "I watch you at the pool / Slowly undress / Spread your towel on St. Augustine / Lay down and rest / Lay down and rest / Lay down in the sun / Lay down with your top / Sweetly undone." The power of the image is found not so much in the visual presence of the woman, but in its incantatory evocation by the poet. One can almost see his feelings as he describes her.

In "Days" the narrator draws a brief picture of women "laughing in the kitchen / Content with the house / Content with the family, / The candles, food, friends / The music / These December days / The shortest of the year / How beautiful they are." But then he goes on to describe "baking bread / Fresh coffee / And for tonight cold Mexican beer…" With just those two extra words, "for tonight," Baker suddenly widens the perspective: this isn't an unending life of domestic happiness but a frozen moment, with the unspoken implication that tomorrow might bring something quite different, maybe something terrible.

If this sounds more like a poetry review than a music review, that's not an accident. There is definitely sweetness in the music, if not in the singing. But without those pinpoint words, the music wouldn't be much more than pretty guitars backing a strange, honking voice singing wayward, halting melodies. If you like Townes Van Zandt and Gillian Welch and John Prine you'll probably like Sam Baker. There, I said it.

Hear some tracks from Pretty World at Sam Baker's Myspace page.

Peter Himmelman, The Pigeons Couldn't Sleep

Veteran rocker Peter Himmelman's latest CD is a concoction of drawling rock, blues, and folk with dark lyrics and a substantial nod to reggae. The ominous title track mixes Chicago blues guitar, reggae bass and keyboards, and vocals that sound like Bob Dylan on a good day. The song is about a relationship gone to hell: "I held out for the best, but then your letter came / I held it in my hand and I nearly died from shame." Why shame? He doesn't say, but we don't need the particulars – it's all in the song's dusky groove.

"Winning Team" is the CD's standout track. Himmelman threads a ska dance beat and Stones-like rock guitar under a catchy, shout-along tune: "I'm a bird-watching fool, my binoculars are clean / But just once I'd like to be on the winning team." Delicious stuff.

Other times the sound reminds one of grim Nick Cave or Lou Reed material, of David Bowie, of Delbert McClinton's blue-eyed soul, or even of Tom Waits, but Himmelman has his very own varieties of the styles he works in: not just smoky gloom but also dry, folksy Americana ("The Ship of Last Hope"), rueful piano balladry ("17 Minutes To 1"), gravelly blues ("Save a Little Honey"), and horn-fed soul musings ("There Comes a Time"), all fed by strong songwriting and smart lyrical phrasings and hooks. "It sure sounded like a good idea at the time." "There comes a time to mend your ways, and that time is now." "I'm never short on distractions, how about you?" Some songs are more memorable than others, and I found myself losing interest during some of the slower ones. But overall I liked the CD quite a lot.

Also included, at least in this early pressing, is a DVD with an hourlong video documentary about Himmelman, including archival footage of his early days with the band Sussman Lawrence (guys he still plays with). "When I was a young man my dreams were all about fame and hair. Now I don't have much of either," he narrates. "But I've got no regrets. I followed my dreams, and they led me here."

Here is really here and there and everywhere: a club tour with his old bandmates, another with an energetic young Israeli band, and some solo acoustic gigs. He talks a little about being an observant Jew and having turned down appearances on the Tonight Show and an opening slot for Rod Stewart because he won't play on the Sabbath. Judaism is about "trying to extract the miraculous from the mundane," he says, and that fits right in with the rest of his philosophy. "What passes for rebellion in rock and roll puts me to sleep," he says. "I was always searching for something far more frightening." Right on, Peter – being a Jew can definitely be frightening. (I'm not saying that's exactly what he meant, of course. But it resonates.)

Despite a perpetual sad mien, Himmelman is funny as sh*t – clowning on stage, making up songs as he goes along, taking a whole audience outside to continue a concert, with acoustic guitars, in a parking lot. Actually, his sad-clown countenance probably makes his antics more funny, and his musical impression of a pompous "rock god" makes Spinal Tap seem tame.

The DVD contains just the documentary, no extras – it itself is the extra. Professionally produced, it sounds and looks and flows very nicely. Don't watch it expecting extended stage performances – is has (with the exception of the rock god improv) only clips. They do give a good feel for the flavor of his songs and his performances, but it might have been nice to see one or two whole songs. Essentially, though, it's a character study in the form of a small road movie, and music aside, Himmelman is a fun character to spend an hour with. Students of rock music and pop culture will also learn a thing or two about life as a professional troubadour. (Himmelman actually supports himself by composing the scores for TV shows such as Judging Amy and Bones.) I found the film very amusing, and modestly enlightening, even though prior to this I had only a vague awareness of Himmelman's music.

Hear MP3s from the new CD here.