Reading autobiography into first-person song lyrics is generally a dicey proposition, which is especially true with Lindsey Baker. The Brooklyn singer and songwriter behind Guts Club sings with piercing emotional intensity on the 10 minimalist tunes comprising The Arm Wrestling Tournament, Guts Club’s debut, but she is the very picture of an unreliable narrator.
That’s reassuring, frankly. Baker’s songs sometimes play like the unfiltered id of someone hiding in your closet and watching through a crack in the door as you get ready for bed: she means you no intentional harm, but there’s no telling what she might do next. In a quavering voice accompanied only by acoustic guitar, Baker threatens suicide on opener “Intestines,” sings to a loved one she’s tied up and stuffed into the trunk of her car on “Trunkie” and is coy about her past in a harrowing dialogue with herself on “Many People Are Dead.”
Death is a recurring theme that comes in and out of focus as Baker delivers unsettling flights of fancy, seemingly without guile. “I’ll throw you in the ocean and drown you,” she sings to start “I’m a Marine Biologist,” before making her purpose clear: “Everyone will think that they’ve found a mermaid/ They’ll name you after me.” Even her silver linings have clouds. “I’ll still never leave you even when you’re through with me,” she sings on “Old and Ugly,” turning what starts as a touching notion into something more sinister.
For all the disconcerting imagery on The Arm Wrestling Tournament, there are moments of genuine poignancy. On “Zoltar,” Baker recalls the fates of various dogs in popular culture—Old Yeller, Lassie, the dog in the Tom Hanks movie Turner & Hooch—and then resurrects a dream from when she was a kid, of leading a pack of them to a farm where they can live in peace without having to wear collars or be put down. It’s the perfect childhood dream: pure, defiant about the standard workings of the world and unattainable in its simplicity. Even the darkest sentiments on the album seem to stem from similar impulses, and the result is collection of songs as fascinating as it is disconcerting.