Slaid Cleaves,
Broke Down
(Philo/Rounder Records, 2000)

Kerrville New-Folk winner Slaid Cleaves sings about life on the ragged edge -- songs about being brought to one's knees by life's vicissitudes that are tinged with despair, but still seem to offer a ray of hope and a way out of the darkness. In fact, I didn't realize how consistently dark the lyrics were until I had studied them closely. Perhaps this is because when I listen to a CD, the first things I notice are the melodies and the textures that the musical arrangements create.

In Broke Down, the tunes are filled with life, and are interwoven with cunningly wrought lyrics that tell stories so compelling that I found myself thinking about them days later -- not about their darkness, or how tragic they were, but reviewing the mental images that formed when I listened to the songs. Life can be tough, but as the old saying goes, "hope springs eternal." Maybe I'm a person whose cup is half full rather than half empty, but I found hope etched on the underside of even the darkest lyrics. Likewise, hope also marked the images that kept returning.

When Cleaves sang, "I've seen the rain tumblin' down. I've felt the cold wind blow. I've seen trouble hanging 'round. Bring it on, bring it on," I caught the image of a person who never quits no matter how tough things get. When he asks, "Will your darkest hour write a blank check on your soul? Just give me one good year to get my feet back on the ground," I hear that there's an end to the darkness. When he says, "I've been chasing grace, but grace ain't so easily found," I'll add the caveat that "Grace" may not be easily found, but it's tucked into the nooks and crannies of this gem of an album everywhere you look.

Cleaves' down-to-earth vocals give the album a homey, living-room feel that I particularly appreciated. He is ably backed by producer Gurf Morlix on electric guitar, bass, octafone, claves, six string bass, bongos, acoustic lap steel guitar, high strung guitar, mandolin, tambourine, magnus organ and background vocals; Charles Arthur on lap steel guitar and electric guitar; Paul Sweeney on mandolin; Ivan Brown on upright bass and background vocals; Ian McLagen on hammond organ; Chris Searles on drums and tambourine; Mark Cousins on drums; Janek Siegele on lead acoustic guitar and vocals; Laura Nadeau on vocals; and Darcie Deaville and Karen Poston on background vocals.

Cleaves wrote or co-wrote most of the songs, including "This Morning I Am Born Again," with lyrics posthumously contributed by Woody Guthrie. The title track, "Broke Down," co-written with Rod Picott, is a song about a broken down marriage that combines a compelling melody with tasteful harmonies and story-telling reminiscent of the work of Don MacLean. Cleaves combines song-writing talent with Picot again in "Bring It On," the most hopeful song of the bunch. In "One Good Year," co-written with Steve Brooks, Cleaves asks for a chance at a better life, and he's artfully accompanied for the by Gurf Morlix on bass, acoustic lap steel guitar, high strung guitar, mandolin and magnus organ. (Morlix isn't just a producer, he's an orchestra all by himself!)

Karen Poston combines her songwriting with Cleaves in "Horseshoe Lounge," a country-flavored peek into a bar where two former lovers shoot glances at each other and ask "Were you the one who faltered? Was I the one who strayed?" Then Cleaves sings Poston's haunting "Lydia," somehow reminiscent to this reviewer's ear of Michael Smith's "The Dutchman." "Cold and Lonely" is a song with a bass line that invokes images of tumbleweed-shrouded, bleached-white cow skulls against a red dirt background, which only could be described as utter despair set to music. "Breakfast in Hell" is a tale of tragic bravery set a century ago in the pine woods of Ontario. It reminded me of the luminescent story-songs sung by Richard Shindell, effectively punctuated by Charles Arthur's electric guitar. "Key Chain" is a twangy, sad tale of a life unraveling, but again the last two lines of the chorus have that never-say-die message: "With just one key on my keychain I'm gonna start all over again."

Cleaves turns to a sound somewhere between old-timey and bluegrass in his cover of Del McCoury's "I Feel the Blues Moving In," another sad song with a ray of hope.

Oh this state of mind is desperate
And the hole that I'm sinking in
Gets deeper while I'm diggin' to get out
Oh please give the right answer
To the questions I'm asking
If you told me that you loved me
It would turn my world about.

Broke Down is Slaid Cleaves' second effort for Philo/Rounder. I'm betting that response from audiences looking for a fresh and articulate voice in the folk genre will ensure that it's not his last.

[ by Tim O'Laughlin ]

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