The name Nat Baldwin may not be familiar to most people, in spite of the fact that he has impressive musical pedigree. As bassist in Dirty Projectors he has been a part of one of the most inventive and original rock ensembles of recent times. That he is also a protegee of legendary improvisor Anthony Braxton is another impressive addition to his list of credentials. As a solo artist, he is very much a string specialist, foregrounding acoustic bass and cello on this brief but mesmerising collection of personal, intricately arranged vignettes.
The dominant voice of the cello inevitably prompts comparisons with the music of Arthur Russell, something Baldwin recognises by opening the album with a straightforward cover of Russell’s A Little Lost. Baldwin’s flighty voice (which interestingly resembles that of his Dirty Projectors colleague Dave Longstreth) lacks Russell’s little-boy-lost innocence and vulnerability and, whilst an undoubtedly honest acknowledgement of Russell’s talent and influence, this interpretation seems to begin procedings on a slightly misjudged note.
It is when Baldwin’s own, distinctive voice emerges that People Changes most impresses. The keening melancholy of The Same Thing puts Russell’s influence to less transparent, more considered use, whilst also demonstrating the flexibility and powerful impact of Baldwin’s falsetto voice. Weights occupies a similar sonic space but is more elaborate and bold, Baldwin clearly aspiring to a unique and personal vision.
Elsewhere, the music on People Changes is more abrasive and challenging, suggesting that Baldwin has also been inspired by his mentor Braxton. There’s the bizarre and intentionally cluttered sound collage of Lifted, during which Baldwin mixes intense free improvisation with a heavy rock backbeat. The juxtaposition perhaps feels a little forced but at least Baldwin is willing to take risks. Perhaps most exciting is What Is There, the album’s most radical and adventurous moment and the one where Baldwin’s ideas are most successfully crystalised. Here, Baldwin demonstrates an informed awareness of the effect of timbre and texture.
People Changes concludes with a sombre, moving interpretation of Kurt Weisman’s Let My Spirit Rise, a dignified and empathetic way to finish proceedings. At just over thirty minutes, it certainly feels slight – as if Baldwin has only tentatively explored some musical ground here. Some mini-albums work remarkably well as concise, focused achievements. People Changes isn’t quite one of them – it leaves too many questions unanswered. As such, this feels more like a suggestion of Baldwin’s potential than a full realisation of his obvious talents. Whatever comes next will hopefully be a more substantial offering.