Slaid Cleaves,
(Rounder/Philo, 2004)

Slaid Cleaves is a youngish, rooted singer-songwriter who grew up in Maine but who now -- like what one sometimes suspects are uncountable hordes of other country-folk composers -- holds down the fort in Austin, Texas. This is his sixth album. I pretend to no particular expertise on his music, which ordinarily comes into my ear when I'm listening to an Americana station over the Internet and hear a familiar voice I never seem to be able to place immediately. His best-known song, which I do recognize when I hear it, is the often-anthologized "Broke Down."

Like Bruce Springsteen in his folksinger guise, Cleaves' songs tend to be mid-tempo, sung in a quietly intimate voice. His characters are a familiar cast of working-class dreamers and losers. Add John Prine and the late Townes Van Zandt to the mix, and you get a pretty good sense of what the three would sound like if they were one musical and philosophical sensibility, with the qualification that Cleaves -- in common with just about everybody else -- is not in their league. If they're the major poets, he stands in the larger ranks of respectable minor ones.

This time around, the sound is beefed up via Gurf Morlix's patented electrical shimmer. As always, the production wouldn't sound so raw and casual if it weren't so precisely calculated. Morlix, some species of genius in this regard (the sort of studio wiz who has led me to buy CDs on his name in the production credits alone), has managed to create an irresistible modern folk-rock sound. Even so, no one except perhaps a hyperventilating PR flack at Cleaves' label, flailing for something fresh to say, will mistake this for a pop-rock album or even, at its core, all that much of a departure from what has gone before. It's just modern folk music with a little more texture, and there ain't nothin' wrong with that.

Cleaves is smart and likable, a modest sort who writes decent, earnest songs set to spare, threadbare melodies. Those who are most likely to be excited by the result are, I imagine, those who haven't heard a lot of this sort of thing before. On the other hand, you can have heard as much of it as I have, and Cleaves will still grow on you if you afford him the courtesy of more than one cursory listening. If you do, his good eye and kind heart shine through. You begin to appreciate what he can do with a lyric as simple as "My drinkin' days are over/ But I'm still trouble-bound." Not art for the ages, perhaps, but it certainly does for some engaging moments.

by Jerome Clark
8 October 2005

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