Slaid Cleaves, Wishbones (Philo)
by: Steve Horowitz
Everybody knows that pulling on a wishbone to make one's dreams come true is silly, but who can resist the temptation to try. The desire for some simple solution to life's challenges tempts us all, even when we're smart enough to know better. Slaid Cleaves knows slim hopes are better than none at all. He populates his brawny songs with hard working, hard drinking men who know life has let them down. They may be unable to figure out how to improve their lot, but they live according to their own code and believe that getting by can be enough. Just keeping on offers the promise of a brighter future.
Actually the title song "Wishbones" is the one cut that's not a character study, but the rollicking introductory number sets the theme for the songs that follow. The song's a barroom anthem that bespeaks life's woes ("Your friends are gone/Your mama's dead/Nothin' left but skin and wishbones") over an uplifting melody that features the disc's producer and guitarist Gurf Morlix (Lucinda Williams). Morlix plays on every cut on Wishbones.
Morlix's presence makes this album different from Cleaves' previous, folkier releases. Cleaves has always had a way with words. He knows how to cleverly tell a tale, as evidenced by his breakthrough album Broke Down (2000). He spent almost four years figuring out what his next album should sound like, and he decided his next album should rock. His collaboration with Morlix proves successful. The legendary Texas producer gives Cleaves' lyrics a muscular groove over which to convey their meanings, and the instrumentation frequently offers expressive counterpoints to the tales.
Consider "Borderline," Cleaves's song about a Mexican who couldn't find a job in his hometown, works illegally for low wages in Texas before being caught and sent back. He eventually engages in manufacturing narcotics to support his family. When he's betrayed and forced to kill either himself or a member of his family to repay his criminal patron, does he kill himself or his brother, sister, mother, father, wife, or child or even the criminal who employed him? Cleaves offers up no easy answer, but lets the strings of the guitar answer suggestively that the answer is as irrelevant as the situation is desperate.
Cleaves's other songs concern the tough life of a horse jockey in the early 20th century, a boxer who drank himself out of contention, a trucker who has been away too long, and other characters who have offered up their physical bodies for pay and have been ground down by the process. The tales aren't always dark, but Cleaves has a dark side. He's said that Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska has been a seminal influence on his work, and it shows. The narrator of "Sinner's Prayer" seems right out of The Boss's more melancholy, dramatic tales. "I'm not living like I should/I want to be a better man," the character declares at the beginning, middle and end of the song as he warns that the honest man you think you perceive has evil feelings inside that he knows he can't express and may be not control.
Cleaves ends the disc optimistically with "New Year's Day," where he sings about "putting down brisket and tequila" (among other things). This repast serves as a great metaphor for Cleaves's music. There's something meaty and tender about the material, with a kick in it that enhances the pleasure. Celebrate being alive and spend time with those you love as if everyday is New Year's Day Cleaves's song suggests, and in your heart you know he's right.