REVIEW: Bro. Stephen - "Baptist Girls"


Bro. Stephen
Baptist Girls
Release Date: January 24th, 2012
Label: Crossroads Of America

For the last three years, Bro. Stephen (Scott Kirkpatrick) has been crisscrossing the country in his car, playing his music in coffeehouses, strangers’ homes, or anyplace else where he could pull out his acoustic guitar and have a few ears listen to his songs.  After two months or so of journeying, Stephen would settle in and spend a few months working in order to raise enough funds to be able to hit the unknown back roads once again.  It’s this blue-collar work ethic that makes Bro. Stephen the image of a hungry artist dead set on following his ambitions no matter the cost, no matter how much hard work it takes.  It’s the travels and the experiences, however, which inform his songwriting and make his debut LP Baptist Girls a tender exploration of life disconnected from the securities of home and the known. 

Baptist Girls was minimally recorded at a converted chicken coop in Indiana.  Throughout the album, the listener is treated with moments of creaking wood or soft rainfall audible in the depths of the mix, the unconventional atmosphere peaking into the recording process unplanned.  The vocals are bare.  Occasionally a guitar is plucked out of tune.  But the songs have a sharp sense of honesty, a closeness not felt in too many albums these days.  The listener might as well be sitting in that chicken coop, tucked in close to him, as most of his small crowds would be if they saw him live on his travels.  On the first spin, it’s this intimacy that immediately stands out. 

Bro. Stephen’s voice will undoubtedly be a polarizing issue with those who give the record a chance. His vocals have great warmth and personality, but there are moments where his vocals wobble a bit in the highest moments of emotional output.  It’s reminiscent of Phil Elvrum (The Microphones / Mount Eerie) or early Connor Oberst. His voice might be unique to some and a bit jarring to others, but Bro. Stephen never once questions his vocal choices. The result is a complete album that is clearly his own audible imprint as a unique songwriter.

The imagery that Bro. Stephen presents through his lyrics is what makes Baptist Girls breathe life into song.  On “Bare Wood” Stephen sings, “It was on the bare wood floor in the upper apartment, you laid your body down…to soak up all of its coolness.”  Later he matches this line with, “It was when I bared my arms, like I wanted to fight you.  You laid your body down, to soak up all my bruises.”  The album is filled with these kinds of introspective turns, as Bro. Stephen examines his relationships in a way that feels both honest and haunting.  The other half of the record speaks to his long travels through strange lands, and the emotions of being in transition.  On “Jacob”, Stephen sings "In this gray-day winter, I know…I’m so far from home.”  The song drops off, and he almost talks the line “I’m so far from home.”  It’s a confession, a stripping of defense mechanisms.  Where most of us would romanticize such long journeys, Stephen highlights the pain, fear, and loneliness.  His record is better because of it.

One of my favorite writers, Pat Conroy, said: “Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.”  While this may be true for some, Bro. Stephen searched his mind and synthesized his experience through song, in the not-so-quiet chambers of song.  The result is the listener being allowed to live vicariously through Stephen, his moments and thoughts as vivid in the listener’s ears as in his own mind.