• Karen Cleaves
  • Slaid Cleaves

Regular readers of my spiels might know I have a special place in my heart for the folksy Austin singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves, a Maine native who seems perpetually overlooked in the rich pantheon of Texas singers. His sharp melodic instincts have always distinguished him from his coffeehouse peers—there’s always been something about his original material that suggested a less acidic Freedy Johnston—and his easygoing mix of folk rusticity, country twang, and pop tunefulness seems to have relegated him to a weird no man’s land. Both his talents and stylistic elusiveness are reinforced yet again with his latest album, Still Fighting the War (Music Road). He’ll play songs from the record and others from his vast oeuvre Thursday night at the FitzGerald’s Side Bar.

The title track, which opens the album and which you can check toward the bottom of the post, is a series an empathic observations about veterans of the war in Iraq struggling to adjust to life in the U.S., where everyone around them “is carrying on just like they’ve always done.” There’ve been plenty of songs on the subject in recent years, but these words pack a punch I’ve rarely encountered and the song concludes with a couplet about a vet’s relationship that’s much darker than Cleaves usually gets: “And all the happily ever afters turn to broken dishes and slamming doors / You’ve been home for a couple of years now buddy, but you’re still fighting the war.” The sadness strewn through the following song, “Without Her,” feels modest in comparison, but there’s still a bite to a lonely existence haunted by a love that’s gone.

As the album progresses the songs become more upbeat. “Hometown USA” starts out painting a portrait of a woman and a man stuck in the small town they grew up on, their dreams and aspirations unfulfilled, when they meet cute and everything is all sweetness if rather corny. Much better is “Welding Blues,” where the song’s narrator finds himself following his father’s footsteps in working at a navy yard despite the fact that he’d always thought “I’d get away,” and the tune concludes with a bit of sobering revelation: “Some things you’re born to / Something you gotta learn.” Cleaves also includes a touching homage to the great Texas singer and yodeler Don Walser, “God’s Own Yodeler,” and he displays his adoration for his adopted hometown in “Texas Love Song,” by declaring to his lover that he’s even more fond of her than the state he manages to rhyme with Lexus, multiplexes, and “text us.”

Today’s playlist:

Pierre-Antoine Badaroux, Composition No. 6 (Umlaut)
Khatia Buniatishvili, Chopin (Sony Classical)
Mars Williams, Paal Nilssen-Love and Kent Kessler, Boneshaker (Trost)
Paul Corley, Disquiet (Bedroom Community)
Fire! Orchestra, Exit! (Rune Grammofon)