I was given a copy of “The Wine Dark Sea” by Steve Baker back in July 2012. Since then I’ve listened to it dozens of times. The main reason I keep returning to it is that it’s one hell of a hot disk. It contains 14 mostly excellent (sometimes good-as-it-gets) songs in a style that’s strongly reminiscent of Ry Cooder, Little Feat, and Bonnie Raitt, performed by a small group of topnotch musicians whose respect for groove is obvious. Anyone who likes this style is going to end up playing this record frequently. And if, like me, you always thought a little more world-class harmonica would make any of the above-named bands sound even better, well, this record is going to make you very happy.
All of the stringed instruments on the record, including various guitars, bass, lapsteel, banjo guitar, and Weissenborn (acoustic lap steel guitar), were played by Goodman, who also handled all the lead vocals, with Baker on harmonicas. The songs are heavy with picking and strumming, but Goodman’s excellent arrangements (and an incredibly clear, full mix) keep everything in balance. The guitar work is simply as good as it gets in this style, as deft as it is thrilling. When the harp steps out front, which happens often enough for me considering how much other cool stuff is going on here, the impact is tremendous. When the harp isn’t dominant, it’s one of the colors in the mix, as carefully chosen and presented as any of the guitars. Martin Rottger, who’s worked with Baker in his trio with Abi Wallenstein, handles drums and percussion with a deft touch, with Oliver Spanuth handling drums on three tunes.
The key to hearing this record is playing it loud enough to hear the details. There are a lot of parts on these songs, and there’s nothing arbitrary about the placement of any of them in the mixes. (These are in fact some of the best mixes in this style I have ever heard.) At low levels you can clearly hear the big-ticket items like the vocals and the big guitars, but listening to this record at too low a level makes it hard to hear a lot brilliant, subtle stuff, including some very cool supporting harmonica work. So when you get your CD, make sure to crank the volume to the point where you’re not struggling to hear it. (Jeez, man, it’s f—in’ rock and roll, turn it UP!)
In short, fans of rock-oriented Americana want this record on their shelves, right now. A few song-by-song comments follow.
Sweet Maybelline starts the record, genial and hard-rocking at the same time. The slide guitar work is heavily reminiscent of Ry Cooder, with echoes of Little Feat in the bassline. Harp is woven into the arrangement as a contrast to the guitars, with lots of rural-style hand work and a nice spotlight harp solo.
Leavin’ On My Mind is uptempo and driving in a rural acoustic style, with a moving vocal and lyric. It also introduces the real theme of this CD, which is leaving, forced or otherwise, and the pain that follows. The harp on this song is at its best when Baker plays his tightly articulated rhythmic licks; his patented quacking attack is used to good effect on both rhythm and lead parts.
Headin’ For A Fall is a full on Little Feat groove with great lyrics and cool acoustic slide guitar, reminiscent of Feat’s “On Your Way Down” in feel, tone, and lyrical messages. The harp is amped and honking when it’s out front. Baker offers lots of nice touches in the accompaniments too, which are mixed way down and do the job very well.
And She Said, sad and beautiful, is the next exploration of leaving, this time with the hope that leaving is not forever. Baker holds back for almost all of this song. When he makes a statement it has the sense of gravitas that comes from waiting to speak, as when the harp delivers a message of hope (“better days ahead”) on the chorus with one bright, yearning lick. This is a good song to play when hope is what you need.
In The Shack, what’s left behind (or not) is an abusive, drunken father. Lyrically, the song is hard-eyed and unsentimental, with a powerful emotional impact that’s reinforced by a rhythm section driven by acoustic and electric slide guitars. There’s no harmonica on this piece, but there’s a lot of harp on the powerful “slight return” instrumental version that’s second-to-last on the CD.
The Letter is a cover of the 1960s hit, and it’s my least favorite piece on the CD. The harp work is of course very good–’60s R&B is just one more variety of red meat for Steve Baker, and you damn well expect him to tear it up–but the arrangement, starting with a much slower tempo than the original, doesn’t excite me much. That said, the players give it their all.
Friends Departed is a slow minor blues with jazz chord changes, presented starkly with mostly acoustic instruments. It is absolutely, brilliantly moving from first note to last, with extended harp work that dares you to cry. This piece alone is worth the price of the CD. The emphasis in the lyric, of course, is on leaving–what else?
Leave It All Behind: Did I mention that leaving is a big theme on this record? The song is uptempo country swing with a touch of gypsy jazz. The rhythm section is light on percussion and heavy on strings, lightweight and propulsive. The harp is deft and witty, with lots of sly smiles in those fast lines.
The Mill of the Stranger plays like an extended intro to the next piece, Hard Time Killing Floor, especially since there’s no gap between the end of the first and the start of the second. Stranger’s electro-guitar opening and Killing Floor‘s descending hook line leave no doubt that this is about something dire, and as soon as Goodman starts singing the subject turns out to be hard times. The emotional content of the lyrics and the music are in total harmony, and the song makes a terrific impact. Baker’s amped up harp is utterly menacing and authentic, the way Ralph Stanley singing “Oh Death” a capella is authentic, meaning that the chilling emotions are directly, concisely expressed and totally convincing. Baker doesn’t play Little Walter licks; he plays like he’s inside Walter’s head. A chorus of low male oohs at least doubles the spooky factor. Great electric slide and harp lead work round out the package.
Maybe She’s Afraid starts with a killer Little Feat/Bonnie Raitt groove, with a bassline that’s as punchy as it is economical, and big, confident guitars on top. The lyrics seem a little overheated, but the music does the job and then some. More amped harp from Baker, and it’s solid stuff, but it’s the smoking lead guitar work that really takes this one home.
On The Shack Slight Return, Baker’s gorgeously heartbreaking acoustic natural minor harp, surrounded with a nice sheen of reverb, takes the lead from the start. Along with Friends Departed, this brilliantly emotional instrumental piece is one of the big reasons to buy this record.
Tiger By The Tail is a Ry Cooder-style acoustic romp for pickers, with a relaxed half-time feel. Baker takes a nice long acoustic harp solo using traditional timbres while showing far more awareness of the chord changes than any traditional harp solo would. When he gets to the end of the piece he abandons all pretense of tradition to throw down a maniac upper register lick that’s easily the most intense thing on this record, utterly modern in its disregard for limits. Now THAT’s Rock and Roll!
Summary: there are at least two masterpieces on this record. There isn’t one piece here that’s not worth hearing more than once, and I listen to some of these pieces almost every day. This is great stuff. Buy it.