Slaid Cleaves Broke Down (Philo)
Reviewed by Jim Caligiuri, Fri., Feb. 4, 2000
Broke Down (Philo)Well that settles it. Slaid Cleaves, with a big assist from his producer and jack-of-all-trades musician, Gurf Morlix, has supplied us with the first great Austin album of the 21st century. Cleaves' last Philo release, No Angel Knows, showed a great deal of promise and had many critics comparing him to the likes of fellow Texans Ray Wylie Hubbard, Billy Joe Shaver, and Steve Earle. Broke Down is in another league altogether. Cleaves' talent for drawing pictures with words has matured eloquently and with startling beauty. He still writes of people down on their luck, the lovelorn and the lost, yet presents them in wide screen; you know these people, you've passed them on the street. There's the tale of love gone astray down at the "Horseshoe Lounge," the worn-down soul pleading for "One More Year," and the tale of Sandy Gray, a proud Canadian logger who ends up eating "Breakfast in Hell." One of the more intriguing tunes is "This Morning I Am Born Again," a poem from Pastures of Plenty, Woody Guthrie's book of previously unpublished songs, stories, and letters. With the permission of Guthrie's daughter Nora, the woman behind the Wilco/Billy Bragg collaboration Mermaid Avenue, Slaid adds a bluesy melody and sings it with soul and laid-back charm that does justice to the song's spiritual nature. Sonically, Broke Down shares a lot with some of Morlix's work with Lucinda Williams. No surprise, really, given that Cleaves and Williams travel the same dusty road. Morlix imbues each song with a flawless sheen of guitars that twang and jangle, understated drums, and bits of organ to fill the empty spaces with just the right touch of color. From now on, Cleaves may be likened to some of his heroes, but Broke Down shows he stands on his own.