Slaid Cleaves is one of those guys who gets described as a "songwriter's songwriter." Highly respected by his peers but little known to the general public. His new album, Ghost on the Car Radio, should earn him more accolades, and rightfully so. The record's songs reveal Cleaves' masterful talent for sharply observed storytelling.
Tales of Desperation
At the center are five songs that form a song-cycle about the crumbling of small town America. In "Take Home Pay," a physically broken construction worker takes OxyContin, sells his blood and takes odd jobs to make his "do-re-mi." The auto repair shop owner in "Little Guys" laments how his long-successful family business is now failing due to corporate chain shops.
Cleaves wonderfully explores how life has changed over the past few decades in "Primer Gray" and "Hickory." In the former, a man recalls how his father used to race the 1974 Pontiac that he has now lovingly restored, but notes the car doesn't interest his son because "kids today all want something more." The eloquent "Hickory" moves from a man reminiscing about his grandfather's mountaintop cabin to the present day where the cabin is gone, as is the local mining business, and all that remains are streets named for the trees that once stood there.
When Cleaves takes a more global view on "Drunken Barber's Hand," his outlook is just as disheartening. In this biting diatribe, he states that he doesn't have to "read the papers or the tea leaves to understand/this world has been shaved by a drunken barber's hand."
Rays of Hope
Cleaves, however, doesn't paint a totally bleak picture on Ghost on the Car Radio. In a trio of tunes near the end of the album, he suggests that love can survive, and bring solace, during these troubling times. "Still Be Mine" asks "would you try to hold on what's left of me." He expresses appreciation, and amazement, over a lasting relationship in "So Good To Me." "To Be Held," similarly, extols the simple power of the human touch. Even the rather cynical "If I Had A Heart" offers a sliver of optimism in its own wry way.
A key player on Car Radio is Austin fixture Scrappy Jud Newcomb, who serves as Cleaves' producer and guitarist, just as he did on Still Fighting The War. Newcomb brings a richness to the arrangements without drawing attention away from Cleaves. The vintage honky tonk rhythm in "The Old Guard" matches the song's story, and the gypsy vibe snaking through "Drunken Barber's Hand" enhances the tune's eerie, ominous message.
There are the little touches, too, like the Beatles-esque twanginess in "So Good To Me." The album shifts smoothly between the uptempo, plugged-in tracks ("Already Gone," "Take Home Pay," and "Still Be Mine," and the starker, acoustic numbers ("Hickory," "Junkyard"), helping to lead listeners through the album's emotional journey.
Ghost On the Car Radio might not attract the attention of a similarly powerful album like Springsteen's Nebraska. But, this compelling, poignant effort is a must-have for anyone who loves expertly crafted songwriting.