Slaid Cleaves: Broke Down
by George Graham
Singer-songwriter territory in contemporary music is increasingly crowded, and yet the variations on the rather straightforward theme are endless. Some are rockers, some are confessional, some advocate a cause, some are funny, some tell stories, and some are various combinations thereof. The songs a person writes are obviously shaped my his or her character and background, and often that background can add a lot of interest to their songs.
This week we have the latest recording from a gentleman with an intriguing background, who writes engaging songs that often tell stories of characters who, though down and out, nevertheless persist, which in some ways reflects his own life. The CD is called Broke Down, by Austin, Texas, based Slaid Cleaves.
Richard Slaid Cleaves grew up in a small town in Southern Maine, and says his interest in music goes back to about age three when he was already attracted by his parents' record collection, and music it held of people like Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie and the Beatles. Cleaves first began performing in Ireland, "busking" on the streets of Cork, where he was attending college in 1985. After returning home, Cleaves formed a band called the Moxie Men in 1989, which soon began to attract a fair amount of attention around the Portland, Maine area, and won honors in a Musician magazine "unsigned band" contest. Seeking a more conducive atmosphere for his music, Cleaves and his soon-to-be-wife moved to Austin, Texas, where there are enough singer-songwriters to populate an incorporated town. But by 1996, he had won the New Folk competition at the Kerrville Folk Festival, and was touring and travelling extensively.
In a way, Cleaves epitomizes the itinerant, but literate and perceptive folksinger. With an appealing voice, and a sound leaning slightly toward the country, Cleaves weaves songs that are often sad but optimistic.
Travelling is a strong source of inspiration for Cleaves. He says that his family took frequent long road trips from Maine to places like Chicago and Virginia when he was growing up, and has a special kinship to being on the road, usually travelling in a quarter-century old Dodge Dart. The CD's narrative liner notes describe a series of harrowing trips with his band in a rickety van afflicted by flat tires, blown engines and arcking wiring. They also make reference to Cleaves' so-called "day job," being a professional medical subject in drug trials, being cooped up on a hospital-like environment for days or weeks, undergoing a continuous series of tests to see if the drug in question is safe. It's a reminder of the sacrifices artists make to carry on their vocation in a world where there are far more talented singer-songwriters than the pop music scene could ever support -- a pop scene generally hostile to literate singer-songwriters like Cleaves in the first place.
But between his jobs as a day laborer, being a medical guinea pig and gruelling touring, Cleaves has recorded five previous albums, some only available independently on cassette. In 1997, Cleaves released No Angel Knows on Philo Records, which received a fair amount of critical praise. His new release, Broke Down, perhaps an appropriate title, given his adventures on the road, is a short but deeply rewarding collection of songs performed in a mostly acoustic context, with some electric country-style guitar and steel guitar. Like Slaid Cleaves' last album, Broke Down was produced by Austin multi-instrumenalist Gurf Morlix who adds a lot of subtle touches like reed organ and mandolin, but keeps the sound rather stripped down and intimate. Joining Cleaves and Morlix on Broke Down are Cleaves' regular travelling band, Ivan Brown on acoustic bass and Charles Arthur on guitars and steel guitar. When drums are heard, they are usually provided by Mark Cousins in this Austin-made recording. Many of the songs on the CD are co-composed by Cleaves with others, including Karen Poston and Ron Picott. Cleaves does a set of Woody Guthrie lyrics he set to his own new music, and he covers a sad old Del McCoury song.
The album begins with the title piece Broke Down, which features a guest appearance on organ by Ian McLagan, former member of the Small Faces and of Bonnie Raitt's band. It's a great story of two lovers who break up, but still can't help but think of each other. It's typical of Cleaves' fine writing and likable vocals that strike a skillful balance between poignancy and kind of easy-going laid-band casualness. <<>>
Another great song that stares misfortune in the face with a hopeful look is One Good Year co-written with one Steve Brooks. <<>>
Cleaves creates a traditional-style narrative ballad called Breakfast in Hell about a legendary Canadian logger named Sandy Gray, and the day he perished trying to trying to break up a jam of logs floating on a river on their way to market. The band gives it a bit of a country twang. <<>>
A theme behind several of this album's songs is that of an indomitable character faced with adversity. In the song called, Bring It On, which Cleaves wrote with Ron Picott, the protagonist's determination takes on an air of defiance. <<>>
Perhaps the saddest song on the album was written by Karen Poston, who might be Cleaves' wife. Lydia, is the story of an old women who lost her husband and son in a mining disaster, and still is haunted by the memories. <<>>
Co-written with Ms. Poston is Horseshoe Lounge, a country-influenced tune about a dive of a bar populated with patrons whose lives are filled with lost opportunities. <<>>
The Woody Guthrie lyrics put to music by Cleaves are This Morning I Am Born Again, an interesting set of words which I suppose could be called non-sectarian inspirational. <<>>
Perhaps the architypical Slaid Cleaves character song is Key Chain, about a man who has a comfortable life but gradually loses almost all of it, and ultimately decides to set out and start all over again. The musical setting is a kind of back-porch country. <<>>
Slaid Cleaves' new album Broke Down is a fine effort by an appealing and likable singer-songwriter who brings us a well-written collection songs about characters, many of them down and out but determined to go on. This transplanted Mainer in Austin, Texas, achieves nice mix of the literate sensibilities of New England style folkies and the kind of expansive storytelling and country twang of the Lone Star singer-songwriters. It's an effective blend that makes for great listening and memorable songs. Producer Gurf Morlix, keeps the sound intimate and laid back, though sometimes there is a bit more country influence than might be appropriate for some of the songs. Still, the result is tasteful and the spare instrumentation increases the effectiveness of Cleaves' songs and highlights his pleasing vocals.
The CD's sound quality is quite good, with effects kept to a minimum, and the intimacy of the performances captured well. But it would have been better with less audio compression in the mastering. The only quibble I would have is that at under 40 minutes playing time, the CD is a bit stingy by contemporary standards.
There are a lot of singer-songwriters in the world, and even with six albums to his name, Slaid Cleaves still has a hard time making ends meet. Here's hoping his new CD Break Down proves to be the opposite of its title and gets him more of the recognition he deserves in this crowded field.
(c) Copyright 2000 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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