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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1357

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Slaid Cleaves: Wishbone
by George Graham

(Philo 1238 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/3/2004)

Singer-songwriters abound on in the 21st Century, 40 years after the rise of the form. Despite a considerable diversity among the thousands of performers plying the trade, a folk-influenced artist singing lyrics that have something to say turns out to be a very rich field with durable appeal. In fact, it has been observed that contrary to the much-noted decline in sales of CDs on the commercial pop music scene, sales by folk-influenced performers have been holding their own quite well -- obviously not being mega hits, but supporting the artists making the music.

This week we have another new release by a singer-songwriter who again proves the depth of the concept, making a memorable recording of literate, often narrative-based songs, that on this CD, also rock out a little. It's the new one by Slaid Cleaves called Wishbone.

Austin, Texas-based Richard Slaid Cleaves has an interesting background. He grew up in a small town in Maine, and already had an interest in music by about age three. He became professional, quote-unquote, in Ireland, busking on the streets between college classes there where he was studying. He was in a rock band called Moxy in the late 1980s around Portland, Maine, before deciding to move to the roots-rock musical hotbed of Austin. By the early 1990s, he was attracting attention and won a songwriter's competition in the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1992. During that time, he released a series of independent recordings, some only available on cassette. During this time, he sustained himself with a variety of jobs, including working as a professional drug test subject, being the guinea pig in the testing of pharmaceuticals under development.

He made his national recording debut in 1996 with No Angel Knows, and followed that up four years later with Broke Down in 2000, an outstanding recording we spotlighted in this series. Now, after another four years, Cleaves is out with Wishbone, and it is a conscious attempt to rock out more. While he came to attention as an acoustic folkie-type, friends and fans were urging him to crank it up some and go more electric. So he has on the new CD, taking a more plugged-in approach to his music, and assuming an almost honky-tonk style country-rock sound on many of the tracks. But though Cleaves and his band can rock, he remains a great storyteller in song, with some real gems on the CD about an intriguing cast of mostly down-and-out characters. But he can also sound like the country rock bar-singer who writes about love and drinking.

Once again Austin producer Gurf Morlix was at the helm in the studio, as he was for Cleaves' last two recordings. The regular band includes Morlix on the bass and Rick Richards on the drums. Making occasional appearances is Ian "Mac" McLagan, British native and former member of the Small Faces and Bonnie Raitt's band. His is also a return appearance, after being a part of Cleaves' last album. Also in keeping with the pattern of his previous release, there are songs that are collaborations between Cleaves and others, including veteran songwriter Wylie Hubbard. And he also includes one non-original song.

Things get under way with the title track, Wishbones, written with Hubbard. This is one of those semi-honky-tonk tunes, musically and lyrically. Another singer-songwriter of note, Eliza Gilkyson, makes a guest appearance on the backing vocals. <<>>

When Slaid Cleaves was growing up, his parents liked to take long road trips, and in his musical career, Cleaves would travel around in a rickety van or an old Dodge Dart. That was partly the inspiration for the title of his CD Broke Down. So, not surprisingly, there is another road song on Wishbones. The one is called Road Too Long, and it sounds like a tune that would be perfect for the juke box in a truck stop somewhere out in the middle of nowhere. <<>>

Perhaps the most downcast lyrics come on Sinner's Prayer, which has a kind of low-down swamp rock sound. The song's protagonist is clearly haunted by his own demons, and can't seem to find a way to escape them. <<>>

While several songs on the album are collaborations with other composers, Cleaves includes one tune entirely written by someone else. Tiger Tom Dixon's Blues, by Rod Picott, fits right in with the characters who inhabit this CD. It's the story of a prize fighter who has fallen on hard times, mainly though his own doing. <<>>

The CD's liner notes, written by long-time fan Rick Jasper, make note of the album's rockier sound, and indeed the author notes how he recommended that Cleaves crank it up. But for me, the CD's best material comes on the latter part of the album, where Cleaves at least partly reverts to being the storytelling folkie. A song called Below is about a village set to be flooded out of existence by the erection of a dam, built by an entity known as "the company." It's musical narrative at its best. <<>>

Another short story set to music is Quick as Dreams, which Cleaves said was inspired by Laura Hillenbrand's book Seabiscuit. It's written from the standpoint of an aging race horse jockey recalling a friend and fellow jockey died in a race. <<>>

Also on the subject of the equine is a song called Horses and Divorces, a great country-rocker about a character Cleaves met in his travels. <<>>

Borderline is another track that shows what Cleaves is best at doing. It's a beautifully written story song about one of the thousands of Mexican immigrants trying to sneak north of the border to find work to support his family back home. <<>>

Though Slaid Cleaves does make an effort to get more electric on his new CD Wishbone, the singer-songwriter for me is still at his best in his story-telling folkier mode. Fortunately, there are good helpings of both facets on Cleaves' music on the CD. The songs are an excellent reminder of why the singer-songwriter format is so durable in music.

Our grade for sound quality is a "B-minus." The instrumentation and especially the vocals have good clarity, but as is so often the case these days,, that is spoiled by annoyingly heavy volume compression and an in-your-face quality that makes the CD sound as if it were being broadcast by a commercial radio station.

Slaid Cleaves may not be the most prolific singer-songwriter on the scene, putting three or four years between successive albums, but he has definitely established himself as one of the bright lights in a crowded field.

(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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