Now Playing: James Lee Baker’s ‘Impressions’

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Baker
Image courtesy of Broken Jukebox Media



James Lee Baker is prepping for the release of a new album. It’s titled Impressions and has a drop date of May 6, 2022. But first, for those of you not yet familiar with the artist in question, a bit o’ background.

James Lee Baker

Baker
Image courtesy of Broken Jukebox Media

James Lee Baker is an American singer-songwriter and musician. According to his official website, his rockin’ resume includes a trio of previous platters.    

Signature Sound

Denver, Colorado-based James Lee Baker’s signature sound is a blend of music genres including Americana, folk, and rock. Sources of inspiration here include Bob Dylan, John Gorka, David Gray, David Mead, Anais Mitchell, and Ellis Paul.

Impressions

Impressions is a 10-track album of covers written by different folk songwriters that have influenced Baker both big and not so. Here Baker leads the way on acoustic guitar and vocals focusing on his favorite folk songs. He is backed by an assortment of other artists including Michael Ramos (accordion, keyboards, and piano ), Roscoe Beck and Eduardo “Bijoux” Barbosa (upright bass), Javier Chaparro (fiddle), Joel Guzman (accordion), Matt Hubbard (harmonica), Doug Pettibone (pedal steel, acoustic guitar, electric baritone, and guitar), Dave Scher (guitar, mandolin, and resonator), Katie Marie and Joel Matthews (percussion), and Mary Margaret Dement, Stasia Esten and Laurie MacAllister, Katie Marie, Molly Venter, and Shanna in a Dress (backing vocals).

Track by Track

The album opens on the disc’s first single, Baker’s version of Anais Mitchell’s 2012 tune “Young Man In America.” This is a great start and an apt intro to Baker’s ability to arrange songs and blend classic folk and Americana music. The song speaks to the impact of family issues on today’s American male.  

In a recent e-missive Baker confirms this saying “[it] speaks of the way that familial trauma shapes the modern, affluent man in the land of the free.” He added: “When I first heard it, I was in tears, off on the side of the road replaying it. Its message hit so close to home and Anaïs’ ability to understand the feeling that so many men feel in this country and convey that into a song truly showcases her exceptional gift in songwriting.” (Baker’s performance vaguely reminds me of a young Cat Stevens. See what you think.)  

The second selection is Baker’s take on David Gray’s “Living Room.” It is wonderfully obvious that Baker truly enjoys playing it and confirms it is “a favorite.” He recalls that it “was one that I could relate to, personally, as I would struggle in my early 20s with depression. I love the moment where he decides to begin anew when he says ‘…let the wind in your sails take you out of this town so sad’.” 

The next number is the pensive “Did Galileo Pray?” Written by Ellis Paul, it was reportedly never formally recorded in a studio. Yet it remains a favorite of Ellis’ fans and Baker too, of course. 

Indeed, Baker’s version is quite effective. He explains that “it is an exceptional story that, among other intentions, challenges the notion of absolutes, that a man of science can be a man of faith, that the two aren’t mutually exclusive.” Baker concludes: “My hope in recording this song was to capture the essence of how Ellis delivered it while bringing a sparseness to it at times that gave room for the emotional experience his writing so well delivers.”  

Baker’s adaptation of David Mead’s nigh-iconic “Nashville” is next. He explains his musical perspective of the piece: “In my interpretation, I wanted to soften the guitar, bring the key down some, and be more delicate with the vocals to emphasize the grief in the song’s journey of a solo drive along a childhood highway.” His performance certainly provides a new perspective that gives it almost a young Paul Simon feel.  

“Rolling Rock and Rock ‘n’ Roll” was written by Steve LaSala and Gene Kowalski. It has a friendly feel to it and a standout to boot. Upon first hearing the song Baker says: “I fell in love with the story, the play on words, and the humor reminiscent of 80s traditional country. I couldn’t help but try to record it myself!”

The sixth selection is “Morningside” written by John Gorka. Like some of the other material here, it has that traveling troubadour feel to it. Undoubtedly, this is not only a fan fave but also one that works well with live audiences. Baker notes: “[T]his song is one of the ones that I love to play when I’m out gigging.” 

He adds: “The message is a wholesome one of rediscovering one’s potential and passions in life. The line ‘work brings more luck than knocking on wood’ has become an idiom that I share in my own life with those that I love and support. I wanted the recording to also be a tribute to his style and how it has influenced me, so the song feels a bit like a John tune too.” 

Rick Todd’s historical “Most Promising Officer” also made an impression on Baker. This almost mournful offering certainly tells a tuneful tale worth a listen as it not only is based on history but it has an interesting western feel to it. Baker notes: “This song, told from the perspective of a trail-walker imagining flashbacks of horror and innocent bloodshed, reveals, in rich imagery, the destructive actions of Ranald S. Mackenzie.”

Baker adds: “Mackenzie, also referred to as ‘Bad Hand’, was deemed the most promising young officer in the entire Union army by Ulysses S. Grant. He would later go on to commit terrible atrocities against Native American tribes across multiple states in the Midwest and South before retiring from the Army due to “general paresis of the insane”.

Kevin Faherty’s “Some People” is the eighth audio adaptation offered on this album. Baker’s love for the material he’s covering continues. He refers to it as “a jewel of a tune.” He concluded: “It’s a lovely song with such an effervescent message that I couldn’t help but to record it.” 

Also included here is a sad Rick Todd song about a mortally wounded soldier titled “Deepening of the Stillness.” Baker’s performance will have you seeing this song-story in your mind. He agrees about the expressive imagery adding that the song “paints a picture of a man losing touch with the linear experience of time and space who is talking to his dearly-loved wife while his senses begin to fail him. The air buzzes like it is full of hornets and ‘crashes’ like thunder in his ears as he recounts his love to the woman who isn’t by his side.”

The closing cover cut is Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman.” Baker has recorded this song previously and his familiarity with it is evident as his performance provides one final example of his abilities. While your rockin’ reviewer had issues with Dylan’s vocals, he’s remained silent about it . . . until now. 

It turns out Baker once had issues with Dylan’s vocals too. He notes: “Like many people, I struggled – especially as a vocal performance major – to get past Dylan’s vocals. However, on the long stretches of driving for work, I slipped in a cassette tape of [Blood on the Tracks]…and gave it my open mind and ears, recalling [my friend Rick’s] advice to ‘listen to what he is saying’.”

Baker continued: “Soon, the player was swapping from one played side to the other and I wore the damn tape out. Learning to play this song, putting myself in the shoes of the storyteller, and bringing my own approach to it really cemented for me just how masterful Dylan is at writing.” (Thank you, James.)

Overall… 

Overall, this disc is an oft’times beautiful, personal musical tribute to those who have left an impression on him. He works to walk the razor’s edge between inspiration and derivation with personal presentations that reflect his own honest impressions and yet remain true to the source. The collection is distinct and focuses on stories by some significant folk songwriters. So check out James Lee Baker’s Impressions and enjoy some “Rolling Rock and Rock ‘n’ Roll.”