So I take the debut album from songwriter Michael Baker (which has been two years in the making by the way!). I press the play button. I listen to all 10 songs in their entirety. I then press play again. At the end of the second full play through I confirm to myself that yes indeed I have just heard a simply stunning collection of songs from an artist that I profess to know little about. That is often the best way I think to listen to music. I've heard albums over the last few years that, for me, have set the bar in terms of musical excellence. It's safe to say that "Dust & Bone" is right up there in esteemed company. And rightly so - this is an album that is built around a multitude of ideas, where exquisitely effortless melodies can nestle amongst complex song structures, where light and shade are given equal standing, and where Michael Baker can surprise and delight at every turn.
What is abundantly clear on the aural evidence presented here is that Baker is, in the nicest sense, a songwriting chameleon. Tom Robinson described him as "soothing singer-songwriter folk", and that may be partially true, but only in the broadest possible sense. There is an aura of grandeur that hovers expectantly over each song on the album, and which explodes into glorious life in "The Steady & The Stuck" and "Pulling The Strings". These songs in particular feel almost theatrical in their composition, Baker knowing exactly when to ignite the spark of intensity. Opening track "The Steady & The Stuck" is essentially the clarion call for this immense piece of work as a whole. Beautifully picked acoustic guitar and Baker's voice teetering on the edge of melodic fragility ease the listener in, and then on the minute mark the song erupts in a swirling crescendo of choral harmonies and understated Hammond organ. Big (and I mean BIG!) productions can often be construed as the result of an overblown and inflated ego, and even worse someone just trying TOO hard. That isn't Michael Baker. This is a guy who knows exactly what he's doing, and exactly what each song needs at any given time. It's why he can easily eschew the notion of a standard song structure for what feels and sounds right. And everything on this album sounds SO right.
"Dust & Bone" is the result of Michael Bakers worldwide travels playing his music to anyone who will listen, and the 10 songs present were whittled down from over 50. It's that care and attention to detail that really does shine though like a beacon, casting it's crafted glow over the songs. A labour of love for sure, but Baker has a magic touch, and the songs do indeed bear that unmistakable hallmark of quality. I don't say that lightly either - there is no formula for plucking 'quality' out of the air, it's not a quantifiable unit of measurement. But you just know when something has it. Listen to Chris Stapleton's "Traveller" - it has it. Listen to Andrew Duhon's "The Moorings" - it has it. And "Dust & Bone" has it too. And it doesn't just have it in instalments - no, that quality is prevalent from start to finish. So a song like "Half My Love" will deftly work its way under your skin on the back of a slew of half melodies that conjoin to form a wonderfully cohesive whole. And the ever turning circle of "Revolving Doors" centres around a simplistic piano motif building to a mass crescendo of euphonic voice and strings combination, without ever losing the uncomplicated feel at its inception.
Overwhelmingly, "Dust & Bone" feels as though it's a deeply personal opening gambit from a new artist who is clearly going to be around for the long haul. The hints in the almost cinematic soundscape that Michael Baker has created, are that he can and will be ever-changing, ever-inventing and genre resistant. A nightmare for those who insist on placing everyone in a box, but a home run for those who just love music to be a natural joy regardless of boundaries. Everything that Baker has been so far is wrapped up into the package that is "Dust & Bone", and that is what makes this release essential listening. As far as debut albums go, this is a formidable statement of intent. A contender for any "Album Of The Year" award you care to mention.
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