The great transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau proudly proclaimed, “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” And James Lee Baker, with his 100 Summers album, follows the path to a modern Waldon’s cabin door, and with melodic introspection, sings songs that (to quote Henry David) “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life”, and “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life”.
Suffice it say, 100 Summers is yet another Americana (from Amarillo, Texas!) testament that understands the deep beauty in our dirt and tombstone dates—which may well be the only things that truly matter—after, as John Steinbeck wrote, we are all, and will forever be, East Of Eden.
The title track, with an almost Cat Stevens’ vocal, resurrects the 70’s existential vibe of Joni Mitchell’s ‘All I Want’, which begged us all in euphoric “applause, applause” because, of course, “life is our cause”, and JLB echoes that youthful vow, as he sings, “If I could have one wish it would be to live a life full of meaning and wonder”.
# File this song under the Pure as the Euphrates River on the Third day of Creation.
By the way, the acoustic guitar accompaniment is quite sublime, and really gives a nod to British and Canadian guys like Steve Tilson, Martin Simpson, James Keelaghan, and David Gunning; and yet it still retains its Texas humble guitar origins. To be blunt: This is not alt country. This singer-songwriter stuff.
‘Misinterpreting The Angels’ (what a great title!) continues the acoustic drama with a clever lyric and a melodic complexity that (sort of) get oddly metaphysical. And (I say this the greatest of respect), JLB’s vocal delivery swims somewhat successfully in the wake of Canada’s Stan Rogers, in his more placid ‘Free In The Harbour’ moments. An electric guitar makes an unexpected appearance and colours the dramatic ending of the tune.
‘Santa Barbara’ is a dartboard shot into a new life (with lovely piano), and quite frankly, tosses any GPS into the wayside bin and simply follows the heart’s compass and the sound of the “mission bells” into acoustic euphoric comfort, which oddly harmonizes with the song’s sad note of departure.
Now, and it’s just an idea, but I’ve always felt Rene Descartes (of “cogito, ergo sum” fame!) spent an inordinate amount of time wondering is he actually existed. And, having read selected bits from his Meditations On The First Philosophy in a French Literature of the Enlightenment (in translation) college course, I must say, while not speaking for the entire class in retrospect, just perhaps (because there was no movie to circumvent the actual reading), it would have been better if our Monsieur Descartes had written a few really decent introspective folk songs (like the three just mentioned!) and then simply said, “Scripsi carmen, propterea ego sum.”1.
But that’s the gist of 100 Hundred Summers: It proves humanity exists. It sings nice songs; it leaves footprints in both mud and snow; it walks on the Moon; it vibrates with a very current glance. I suppose, it’s just another way to say “’nuff said”, or as my ever-faithful Google English to Latin Translator informs, “dixit nuff”.
That all said, James Lee Baker, with song-writing excellence, moves his perspective to others’ introspection. ‘Wipe The Dust Off Your Bellows’ is a waltzed urge to re-ignite the old band after, “Holly has passed away”. This is a memory dance of a tune. And (oh boy!), ‘Returning To Paris’ is an acoustic song laced with irony as two lovers return to “the city of love to say good-bye”. This is sadness personified. And it glances into the absolute depth of (the great) Ralph McTell’s acoustic passion. Again, these songs are (to quote Ray Davies) “Other People’s Lives”, as the speaker in the lovely ‘A New Man’s World’ sings with the pathos of an old man confronted with young technology. This one sadly hums with deflated and aged honesty. Then, the up-tempo ’18-Wheeler (I’m Coming Home)’ huffs and puffs with a trucker’s harmonica pulse. And ‘The Last Cowboy From Hutchington County’ sings with a sad sepia photographic soul of the way things used to be.
Now, ‘Breaking Through The Sunbeams’ is, quite frankly, a brilliant song, written from the view of a 9/11 survivor who “was sick at home with the flu” and enlists into the army. A violin sings desperate nightmares. And the song cuts short; in the end there is just tough psychology–without the hint of a resolution.
By the way (again!), I must confess to once having a tee-shirt that sported that famous “cogito, ergo sum” quotation. But sadly, through numerous wash cycles, the iconic words faded into fabric obscurity. However, there is a photograph of myself wearing that tee shirt, with the words clearly visible—positive proof that, in deference to (the before-mentioned) Rene Descartes, it’s nice to confirm, thankfully, that he and his words still exist.
And speaking of religion, there are two clever songs. ‘Leave The Saving Souls For Later’ has an infectious gospel chorus that links spiritual baptism with the very human need for a good meal. The other (almost solemn) tune, ‘If Eve Hadn’t Eaten The Apple’, uses a biblical framework, specifically Creation and St. Paul, to refute the usual macho arrogance with the really nice wisdom that announces, “Ego is just a prison” and “for our daughters, and our mothers, sisters, and our lovers, they are all, and have always been, our equals”. These words conjure a solo song by (the great) Peter Hammill, circa every one of his brilliant albums; and they certainly deserve a tee-shirt to call home, with thankfully, enough of the good dogma mojo to withstand the rinse cycle in all the torrents of Noah’s flood waters. And to once again quote Google Latin Translator, “dixit nuff”.
The album ends with (the presumed bonus track) ‘100 Summers (stripped)’. It’s a nice reprise of a great tune. But it is a bit of an after-thought.
Years ago, when I finally found an imported copy of a Ralph McTell’s album—Not Till Tomorrow—to be specific, I was underwhelmed with its, to once again quote Henry David Thoreau, “simplicity”; but patient listening revealed its deep and warm (and sometimes profound) vinyl beauty. Ditto for Canada’s David Francey’s The Waking Hour. Well, 100 Summers, after countless spins, reveals its melodic charms and manages, even in this mixed-up modern world, to as our Henry David wrote, “live deep and suck all the marrow out of life”.
1I wrote a song, therefore I am.
Artist’s website: https://www.jamesleebaker.com/
‘100 Summers’ – live: