WISHBONES, Slaid Cleaves' third album for Philo/Rounder, features all the strengths that have drawn him a loyal following as one of Americas most acclaimed singer-songwriters. The songs remain literate, emotionally vivid and concisely colourful. Only this time, they make you move. After three years of steady touring, Cleaves decided he wanted to make more of a band album, one that rocked harder than the acoustic-based songs hed previously recorded. Producer and multi-instrumentalist, Gurf Morlix, readily agreed. The strong narratives and character-driven stories are filled with moments of reckoning. While the title song focuses on a desperate hope for another chance, Sinners Prayer, about a man hiding a dark side thats ruining him, hasnt a hint of optimism. Set to a gospelly, dark blues reminiscent of Bob Dylans recent work, its one of the songs that shows how much Cleaves has transformed himself on his new album. Terser and punchier than past work, yet still packed with the same emotional weight and clever wordplay, WISHBONES proves Cleaves is a versatile artist capable of swagger as well as sensitive insight. Tracks: Wishbones / Road Too Long / Drinkin' Days / Sinner's Prayer / Tiger Tom Dixon's Blues / Below / Quick As Dreams / Horses / Hearts Break / Borderline / New Year's Day Also available: NO ANGEL KNOWS (CDPH1201); BROKE DOWN (CDPH1225)
Radio 2 drivetime listeners will already know the name of Slaid Cleaves. A regular guest of Johnnie Walker's, he even wrote a touching off-the-cuff ode to Sally 'Traffic' Boazman that still gets an airing! But if you approach Slaid's albums expecting breezy country folk you're in for a big surprise. Cleaves writes about desperate men, losers and failures, all from the perspective of a bar room raconteur. They may couched in easy, bar band music, but scratch the surface and these songs are not pretty pictures.
It's appropriate that Cleaves relocated to Austin. Like the Texan town's more famous sons and daughters such as Joe Ely, Steve Earle or Lucinda Williams (with whom he shares wonderfully-monikered bass player Gurf Morlix), his raison d'etre is telling stories. In fact it's the younger Earle that Cleaves can be most easily compared to. Like him, he takes his cue from both Hank Williams AND Woody Guthrie. While Earle now brings a more political perspective to much of his work, Slaid still concentrates on the ordinary man and his ordinary failures. Songs about car-obsessed grease monkeys ("Road Too Long"), old men reflecting on glory days ("Quick As Dreams") and recovering alcoholics paying for mistakes ("Drinkin' Days") can't help but remind you of albums like Exit 0 or Guitar Town.
That's not to say that Cleaves isn't an original. His voice is far sweeter than Earle's and with his last album, Broke Down, he easily carved out his own niche in the ever-burgeoning Americana scene, and looks set to continue with Wishbones. To English ears the bleary blue-collar romanticism (as with Springsteen and Earle) may seem a little contrived at times and the anti-modernisation ballad "Below" comes across as cloying. But one can't but help feel grateful to someone who so fearlessly faces what most of us would willingly shy away from. As he says on ''Hearts Break'': 'One thing remains: the terrible beauty of it all'. --Chris Jones
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