Slaid Cleaves has been on the edge of greatness since his 2004 Rounder Records release, Wishbones. He is an Austin-based singer/songwriter whose distinctive lyrics place him firmly in the camp of great Texas musicians. He's got a tremendously appealing voice that is soft and sweet, and in many ways identifies him with some of the best contemporary acoustic music artists, Mark Erelli and Ellis Paul among them.
It is clear that Cleaves is adept at transcending genres and creating his own brand of music. You can use all kinds of adjectives to describe his new CD, Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away. It is certainly Americana and roots-based. And it's got the very personal sound of acoustic music. But what it really has going for it is that it is beautifully crafted music in every way—from the lyrics, to the melodies, to the production. The themes here are mostly dark—from lost love, to lost lives, to lost dreams that never come to fruition. It is to Cleaves' credit that the listener remains hooked to the story played out in the lyrics, and to the beauty of his vocals. He somehow changes the darkness into light as we drift along with the melody. This is a great gift.The CD opens with Cry, its best and strongest cut. There are at least half a dozen songwriters I know who would kill to have written lyrics like these:
New love like a diamond
Everything is right about this song: the catchy melody, the deep sentiment expressed in every line, the backing drums and percussion by Billy Harvey, and the finely honed production. Despite the pain, the loss and the true sadness expressed here, Cleaves' magic is his matter-of-fact delivery that hooks us in and takes us along for a deeply satisfying musical ride.
Beyond Love is a song about how love changes over time—from "young love's foolish game" to "days fade into night shades beyond love." The melody reminds me of some of John Lennon's later work with the Beatles—it is that good. Trish Murphy's subtle backing vocal is simply stunning. All of the players here are perfect, particularly Charles Arthur on piano and Steven Foley on English horn.
Green Mountains and Me is particularly heartbreaking in that it tells the poignant story of a woman made a widow by war. It could be today or it could be a hundred years ago—the sentiment remains the same. Cleaves adds a touch of bluegrass with the excellent Gene Elders on fiddle. And Trish Murphy makes an appearance once again, adding a certain beauty to the harmony vocals.
A haunting fiddle and a funereal drum accompany Slaid Cleaves on organ in the stark and gripping story of a group gathering, complete with lemonade and a festive air, to witness the hanging of an unnamed Black youth in Twistin. The tale is riveting despite Cleaves' deadpan delivery of the lyrics. Perhaps that should read that the lyrics are mesmerizing because they are delivered without emotion. It is another dark tune which Cleaves pulls off with great skill, and with the listener tuned in from beginning to end.
Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away is Slaid Cleaves' masterwork. Mining dark themes and deep emotions, Cleaves tells his stories of loss and despair with finely tuned lyrics and hook-laden melodies. Stephen King, in his introduction to the recording states that "[my] life would be poorer without Slaid Cleaves." I know that everyone who takes a listen to this gem of a recording will agree. This is one of the finest recordings of the year.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2009, Peterborough Folk Music Society and Roberta B. Schwartz.
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