GHOSTS ON THE CAR RADIO
Candy House Media/Proper Records
The Voice of the Working Man Distilled Through Some Beautiful Songs.
Where does the time go? It only seems like the blink of an eye since I first heard Slaid Cleaves singing Horseshoe Lounge on the More Sounds of the New West CD that was given away with Uncut magazine in January 2001 and proved a gateway into Americana music for me. That gorgeous world weary voice that I know every nuance of now returns with his 13th (?) album in nearly 27 years.
As the owner of 11 of those discs it was with more than a little bit of nervous excitement that I slid the disc into the player. I waited with baited breath and was pleasantly surprised to hear him fronting a band on Already Gone; a bit of an intense Alt. Country rocker that brought back happy memories of some of his earlier albums.
Always an advocate of other songwriters Slaid first introduced us to the works of Karen Poston many years ago and here her Little Guys fits in perfectly well as Slaid recounts the sad story of a guy called Butch who was ‘pumping gas in first grade’ and could ‘rebuild a carburetor by the time he was 12 years old’ in the family auto-service centre and now 40 years later he has inherited the business just as the corporations and complicated regulations have taken over and he has to consider giving it all up. A story that I hear over and over again these days; but the way Slaid inhabits the character left me with a funny feeling in my stomach and a tear in my eye.
While a mighty fine songwriter himself; Cleaves includes four songs from his best friend since school days; Rod Picott.
One of which, the single Drunken Barbers Hand is a whole new direction for both and includes some ghostly harmonies and impressive guitar interludes from producer Scrappy Judd Newcomb while Slaid pores his heart out in the vocal department.
Another from Picott’s pen, Take Home Pay explores a blue collar workers struggles to make ends for his family; and even considers ‘going to the blood bank’ or ‘selling pills to red-eye truckers’ in a song that really captures the current mood across the world.
It’s not just Cleaves’ expressive way with words that I love; but the subject matter in songs like the beautiful To Be Held and Hickory that make him a Master-craftsman in this dark art.
As an unadulterated fan; there’s nothing here I don’t like and didn’t expect any other outcome; but if you don’t already know his work try listening to Primer Gray; an age old story of a man following in his own fathers footsteps by inheriting a Pontiac ’74 that his own son doesn’t want. Heartbreaking and beautiful in equal measures.
The title of ‘favourite song’ is a difficult one as two songs tugged at my heart strings for different reasons. The first, If I Had a Heart harks back to some of my favourite sorrowful songs from his earlier works and includes the line “If I had a heart/You’d be breaking it now.” Wow……how insightful is that? Then play out the song to a moving backing band and you have a song that is totally unforgettable.
The other; is a jaunty slice of old-timey Country with Slaid singing about The Old Guard who hang out at Dickies Bar, playing George and Hank on the Jukebox talking about Sports and the weather; until the kids play ‘their fast modern tunes/as the floors bounce.’ Slaid’s voice has never sounded better, in my humble opinion on a song that will surely feature on any upcoming Best Of album and of course his concerts and will have fans of all ages smiling and nodding along in agreement.
Part of me wants to say that this is ‘much of a muchness’ with Slaid Cleave’s previous albums; and to some degree it is; but the more I play it the more that Newcomb’s warm production releases and reveals, and leaves me feeling that there is even better to come over the next few years.
Released June 23rd 2017