I’m not generally a fan of singer-songwriters. When I think of the genre, three images come to mind:
• There’s going to be a song I don’t quite comprehend but everyone else seems to. So I have to pretend to understand it else be thought of as being dense. Worse yet – when everyone seems to like it, I have to pretend to appreciate it as well.
• There’s going to be another song that delivers a moral (political or
otherwise) message. When I hear it, my resentment automatically rises to the surface. I feel like I’m being lectured by a more self-righteous version of my parents.
• Finally, there will be a sappy love song containing a lot of similes, metaphors, poetic language, etc. But no matter how it’s dressed up, it’s still a sappy love song.
So I didn’t have high expectations when I received Slaid Cleaves latest efforts, Sorrow & Smoke: Live at the Horseshoe Lounge. Fortunately, my apprehensions were misplaced.
But first, about Richard (Slaid) Cleaves: he’s a singer-songwriter raised in Maine who moved to Austin,Texas. In high school he played in a Bruce Springsteen-influenced band. You can still detect the Springsteen influence in the way he paints some of his characters. He gradually moved from rock to more acoustic and country influences. In 2000, his album Broke Down, along with the title song (co-written with Rod Picott), was a hit on the Americana charts.
Sorrow & Smoke: Live at the Horseshoe Lounge is a double-CD recorded at a well-known bar in Austin. It has the feel of an intimate, live show, including clinking bottles and banter between the band and the audience. Besides Cleaves, his ensemble includes Michael O’Connor on lead guitar and Oliver Steck on accordion/trumpeter/harmonica. Their support, while not generally flashy, has a strong melodic sense. They give the songs enough drive and variability to make it interesting without detracting from the intimacy of the setting.
Cleaves’ material consists of stories about drifters, people down on their luck, and lonely barflies. I’m glad to say he avoids the sins I’ve listed at the beginning of this review. The lyrics are straightforward and have a homespun feel. Cleaves delivers them in a pleasant, sincere tenor. Among the highlights:
- “Broke Down”, his most well-known song, (which he states carried him from “total obscurity” to “relative obscurity”) describes relationships irretrievably lost, with the attendant feelings of yearning and regret:
Broke down, cracked and shattered,
Left in pieces like it never even mattered,
Broke down, torn and frayed,
Ain’t nothin’ left you could give away,
There’s no turnin’ round,
It’s broke down.
- “Horses” tells the story of a rancher with less-than-stellar success in his relationships:
If it weren’t for horses and divorces,
I’d have a lot more money and less gray hair,
I might even be a millionaire,
If it weren’t for horses and divorces,
I’d be a lot better off today.
The implied equivalency in his companionships won’t win any awards for political correctness, but it’s an amusing song.
- The audience is enlisted in rhythmic logging grunts in “Breakfast in Hell,” which describes a gung-ho but ill-fated lumberjack, in what Cleaves calls the “narrative workplace disaster song.”
- Cleaves also delivers a tribute to Texas country legend Don Walser by yodeling on two of the master’s songs, “Texas Top Hand” and “Rolling Stone from Texas.” He’s does a good job, too (It’s not easy – I’ve tried!).
The only weak song in the collection is “Go for the Gold,” a somewhat preachy tune about the Golden Rule, loving your neighbor, etc.
But that’s the exception. I came away from this CD impressed with Cleaves’ skill as a songwriter and as a performer. He melds his various influences to create tight, interesting vignettes of American life, and uses his pleasant voice and self-deprecating sense of humor to keep the performance relaxed. Sorrow & Smoke: Live at the Horseshoe Lounge is a moving, amusing CD and an unexpected, quirky find.