Austin-based singer/songwriter Slaid Cleaves follows up his 2000 breakthrough Broke Down with a more muscular effort that finds him further from the coffeehouse and closer to the honky-tonk. Working again with producer Gurf Morlix, who made Lucinda Williams sound great for so many years, Cleaves offers an eclectic collection of tunes about colorful losers.
Morlix joins a band that also includes veteran keyboardist Ian McLagan, drummer Rick Richards and guitarist Charles Arthur. The opening title track, co-written with Ray Wylie Hubbard, would have fit in nicely on Broke Down. Against a Steve Earle-ish melody, Cleaves sings in a world weary but smooth voice, “Day after day after trying to understand / Why the world tries to grind you down like a ghost out of a man.” There’s a twangy guitar solo, a touch of fiddle and an impressive bridge section. Cleaves and company also give us a spooky, organ-tinged hoodoo blues on “Sinner’s Prayer.”
Throughout the record, Cleaves introduces the listener to a novel’s worth of tough characters and dreamers. There’s the guy trying to give up the boozing life, the New England pugilist, a desperate Mexican who must cross the border to find work and an 84-year-old looking back on his life of racing horses. But Cleaves doesn’t just view these characters from afar. Sometimes he interacts with them himself. On one tune, a down-on-his-luck guy tries to get Cleaves to cut him in if he makes a hit out of his story and life motto. Even what could have been a rather generic Texas road anthem, “Road Too Long,” is rescued by Cleaves’s attention to lyrical detail.
But he also occasionally takes a more macro approach, viewing a war-plagued world on “Hearts Break.” “Hope lives in the hearts of men / Hatred creeps in now and then / I hate to tell ya kid but it’ll never end… We’re never gonna run out of blood to spill,” he sings.
Fortunately, Cleaves concludes the album on a more optimistic note. “New Year’s Day” is an upbeat traveling holiday family reunion, and one of the record’s most infectious tunes. It all adds up to the finest effort yet from a guy who has quickly become one of the best singer/songwriters in the Lone Star State.