Micah P. Hinson’s The Baby and the Satellite is slathered with quote unquote authenticity, sounding like it sort of accidentally wandered into a studio with all of its possessions tied up in a handkerchief on a stick. (To drive the point home, many songs here are bracketed by field recordings of appropriately mundane and melancholic sounds– hissing buses, ambient street chatter, crying babies.) The young Texas-based singer’s gloomy desert-country stays pragmatically simple enough to pluck out on the back of a trotting burro, and his voice has that creased and cracked, sun-baked quality that makes you imagine he plays a mean harmonica (thankfully, he refrains).
This verisimilitude is often chalked up to Hinson’s checkered, archetypal life story– reared by wild-eyed snake handlers in the deep South; escaped into the arms of a noir vixen in the even deeper South; freebased rat-poison; did a stint in the bing; recorded on a busted reel-to-reel in an outhouse; whatever. The point is that Hinson’s just about one messy divorce short of an outlaw-country-cred royal flush. But in this day of James Freys, JT Leroys, and other assorted hyperauthors, who’s to say? For all we know, Hinson recorded The Baby and the Satellite in between shifts at the Dippin’ Dots stand in the waterpark on his summer break from UT. But even if this were true, it wouldn’t change the profound sorrow embedded in this album one iota. So it does us no good to dwell on derivation. Nor does it behoove us to focus on the plaintive lyrics, which, detailing the typical manifestations of despair and heartbreak, range from serviceably striking to harmlessly trite. What makes Hinson worthwhile is knack for couching sumptuous melodies in stately, staid arrangements, and how his music tends to be solemn and catchy at once.
These songs predate Hinson’s 2005 debut, The Gospel of Progress; they’re re-recorded versions of his 2001 demo. That entire half-hour demo is included on The Baby and the Satellite’s final track, and while it’s nice to hear the songs in their embryonic stage, the eight studio knock-ups are the keepers. The album starts strong with “The Dreams You Left Behind” (and ends strong – a starker version of “Dreams” closes the album, bending the song cycle into a purgatorial ring-shape), where an expressive acoustic guitar lead draws out a bright yet sorrowful phrase as Hinson, double-tracked Iron & Wine style, shades his gently gruff moan with a weary falsetto. Hinson is at his best when he’s prayerful, cradling his melodies as gently as his rough voice will allow, which he does beautifully on “Dreams” and especially on “The Leading Guy”. Amid a hearty acoustic strum and a mist of mournful keyboards, Hinson swings between hoarsely barked verses and the hymn-like refrain of “He moved on to God knows where," arresting in its reverence and repetition. And “Wasted Away” burbles and wavers around a silvery lead, flowing like a lazy, frosty river. Whether Hinson’s an honest-to-god desert maniac or not becomes sort of irrelevant when the music’s hanging dark and heavy on the air.