This is the long awaited album of new material for fans of Slaid Cleaves. It is also another chance for people who don't know his work to make an important addition to their musical life. Unfortunately for them, the first three songs of the album are not likely to be the ones that gain new fans. The first track has a world-weary-in-a-bar theme with a devil may care chorus. It's jaunty in an ambivalent way. The next track, Road Too Long is a nicely done road-weary tune. This is followed by Drinking Days, another world-weary barfly song that has a nice reference to "The Horseshoe Lounge" for fans but I can imagine the uninitiated beginning to think that Slaid is a one trick pony.
For those who stick around, this is where the album really takes off. Sinner's Prayer, cowritten with his buddy Rod Picott covers the same regretful ground, but with a Tom Waits-like groove and a slithery anti-hero appeal. Producer Gurf Morlix gets the Waits sound right, from the undamped bass drum to the inky guitar chords. Cleaves also covers Picott's Tiger Tom Dixon's Blues about a gifted club fighter who never reaches his potential because he hits the bottle as hard as he hits his opponents. This tight little rocker has a narrative like a series of straight lefts and a chorus like a quick right hook.
Below is a ballad that showcases Cleaves' dust-bowl voice against an oddly appropriate string section. You can hear echoes of Woody Guthrie as he sings of the little guy standing fast against the powers that be. The next song, Quick as Dreams was inspired by chapter five of Laura Hillenbrand's book, Seabiscuit. This song is one of Cleaves' best ever, with a lilting refrain ("Sailing by eight feet high/ On horses quick as dreams") and compact narrative. Sticking with horses, we have "Horses," a jovial country song ("If weren't for horses and divorces/ I'd be a lot better off today"), with a couple of full-fledged yodel breaks for good measure.
Hearts Break is a curious mix of optimism and pessimism summed up in the chorus, "Hearts break, hearts mend/ Pick up the pieces, you get up again." It's served up with a big beat and a so-what attitude. This is followed by a tragic Mexican border ballad, Borderline, that deals with people living in the land of hard choices. The album ends with a tribute to the late friend and mentor who welcomed him to the Texas music scene when he first moved there from Maine.
For a man who during the past year admitted to experiencing writer's block, this album is quite an accomplishment. In fact, these are probably his best songs yet. The stories draw you in from the first listen, paired with melodies that make you want to sing. His voice can send a shiver down your back as it wafts through a room past the ghosts of Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams. Gurf Morlix's production packs a punch without overpowering the songs. Cleaves has enjoyed a great deal of success (in an Americana kind of way), touring non-stop after the release of Broke Down. Wishbones should keep him away from home for the foreseeable future.
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