They may couched in easy, bar band music, but scratch the surface and these songs are...
Chris Jones 2004
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'.