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Michael Baker Michael Baker
Album: Salt
Label: Keys To The Kingdom
Tracks: 10

This is the, much anticipated, second album from Anglo-French singer-songwriter Baker, following 2016's acclaimed release, Dust & Bone. The Brighton based artist, a regular on the live circuit, presents a set of well-crafted and thoughtful songs; think of the symphonic depth and minimalist complexity of Sufjan Stephens, overlaid with the quintessential English whimsy of Nick Drake, backed by the Eagles.

The album opens with Shed my Skin a wash of steel strings, strummed brightly, before Baker's attractive alto tells of isolation and dismay, switching effortlessly into his falsetto range for the chorus, as, gradually, Fred Hill's drums implode into the mix, evocative string arrangements by Peter Vetesse (Jethro Tull), with a nod to the great Paul Buckminster, a foreshadowing of delights to come.

The title track Salt, a lazy country blues, features a haunting vocal duet, and subtle drive is propelled by Ed Martin on bass and some classy organ flourishes from John Moody.

The modern classic, Baby Books, which attracted a strong critical reaction when released as a single last year, combines a driving rhythm section with a haunting piano motif from Andrew Stuart-Buttle, and a glorious melody, speaking of loss and regret of a life cut short, inspired by the suicide of a close friend.

Baker has the benefit of superb backing musicians on this set, with arrangements that mold the not inconsiderable parts into a subtle and evocative whole, with a polished production from Ed Martin, giving an almost cinematic sense of space and depth. The album was mixed by Oliver Baldwin (Aldous Harding, This Is Kit) at Real Word Studios and Mastered by Pete Maher (The Bad Seeds, Damien Rice).

Little Hands, starts slow, a majestic soulful ballad, sung to an inner child, before the Hill/Martin rhythm section takes off, and electric guitars by Tom Anderson and Oli Hinkins weave jagged arpeggios, light and shade provided by the classy pedal steel of Maggie Bjorklund, resonating with echoes of Americana, and the mournful cello of Fi fi Hoffman, as Baker asks the question,
Imagine little hands on your fingers
You gotta put feathers on those wings
God haven't you heard about me?
Isn't it strange in this life?

One God Damn follows, a Hammond drenched, joyous, sing-along with a strong hook, a haunting bridge, and a triumphant climax. Big Moon a mid-paced country rocker; Hippy Dippy a quixotic romance with a dark heart; then the reflective melancholy of the string washed They Look Just Like They Know and, all too soon, the album closes with the ragtime guitar and subtle pedal steel (from Bjorklund) of Past the Evening, a road song for our age.

This is an album of beautifully constructed, well performed and arranged contemporary confessionals, and stands up well in a crowded field.

Laura Thomas