SLAID CLEAVES – Ghost On The Car Radio (Candy House Media CHM 130)

Ghost On The Car RadioIt’s been four years since there was any new material from the Maine-bred, Texas-based Cleaves, but, marking his 25th year in the business, he returns in splendid form with Ghost On The Car Radio, an album that has brings a keen eye and an open heart to the changing times in small town America, and the world at large, with songs that speak of disillusion, solace and hope.

He kicks off in firmly McGuinn mode with the ringing guitar and tumbling chords of ‘Already Gone’, a song that balances the sense of things never achieved (“Through the years you grasp and you hold on to a little dream that won’t die only to watch it recede along with all the garbage gone out with the tide”) with the peace of acceptance (“May not have gotten all that I dreamed of, pretty sure I got what I deserved”) in which you “Feel the weight lift up off my shoulders, feel some kind of mercy in the wind.”

Riding a loping reggae beat range with a lonesome desert guitar solo (courtesy producer Scrappy Jud Newcomb) in hand, the moody ‘Drunken Barber’s Hand’, co-penned with Rod Picott, which offers an inspired image for the state of the global nation as he sings how “this world’s been shaved by a drunken barber’s hand”, its apocalyptic visions underscored in the lines “go ahead make your confession to a washed up whiskey priest. I’ll be puttin’ money down on the rough and slouching beast” with its reference to Yeats’ poem The Second Coming.

That sombre, crushed spirit extends into the numbed feelings of the hushed, whisperingly-sung ballad ‘If I Had A Heart’ (“The more I see, the less I understand. The harder I work, the poorer I feel. The deeper the faith, the more I’m broken”), the singer’s hard won cynicism foreseeing the same future for the idealistic dreamers who “come around with your soft young skin. With no idea what you’re about to step in.”

Veined with nostalgia and bitterness, the decline of small town America and of the blue collar stiffs who scraped a living in them is a central element to the album, most particularly so in ‘Little Guys’ where the narrator recalls starting out pumping gasoline at his parent’s auto repair shop, able to repair a carburettor by the time he was 12, but how, following his dad’s death, the good old days of the successful family business gave way to decline with the advent and arrival of big business and chain stores in the name of progress and “the little guy shops don’ t stand a chance when the big guys start to play.

He carries over the auto imagery into the lilting sway of ‘Primer Gray’, another Picott co-write which, featuring fiddle, again takes a nostalgic tack as the narrator tries to convince his teenage son that the restored 1947 Pontiac he inherited from his own father, who used to race it down the track, still has what it takes. On the surface it’s about how it’s what’s under the hood that counts, not the flash on the surface, but it’s not hard to see the deeper underlying socioeconomic metaphor.

Featuring upright bass, mandolin and resonator guitar, ‘Hickory’ is another slow dance tune about the past being swept away by progress as the singer recalls his grandfather’s mountaintop cabin and the local mining business, which have vanished, along with the trees, all remaining of them being the names of the streets.

The third of four Picott co-writes, ‘Take Home Pay’ has a rockier, twangier approach that, at times, melodically recalls Jackson Browne in a song about growing older and still trying to make enough to keep body and soul together , his wife leaving him because “in the end you can’t really blame her, we’re all scrappin’ for the do re me.”

Taking a stool at the local honky-tonk for a Johnny Cash chug, ‘The Old Guard’ is another song about looking back to better times when the going gets too hard, here in the snapshot of a bunch of guys down the tavern picking out old songs on the jukebox, the lyrics referencing ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, ‘Crazy Arms’ and ‘Crying Time’, as “heartbreak goes down easier with beer and rhyme.”

It’s not all so downcast, the jaunty Beatlesesque ‘So Good to Me’ speaking of resilience bolstered by a solid relationship (“Through thick and thin you stayed, all through my darkest days”), while, plucked out on electric guitar, the simple, romantic ‘To Be Held’ is about how, when things get rough, a simple embrace can mean more than silver and gold.

David Boyle on piano, that streak of positivity built on a solid foundation of love, even when dreams sputter out, continues through the up-tempo cascading chords of ‘ Still Be Mine’ (“Hold me closer ’cause I’m starting to slide. Could you bite my bottom lip and whisper something sweet/Always loved the way you looked when you lied . It’s all right, don’t you cry, you can still be mine”).

He returns to the automobile imagery for the album’s movingly resigned, accepting yet still dignified, mortality-themed closing track ‘Junkyard’, the final Picott co-write, where, having “swapped out my share of parts from fenders and alternators to shoulders, knees and hearts” the world weary narrator’s come to the realisation that “it’s time to throw in the towel. Some breakdowns you cannot mend. Like all that have come before us, we all must face the end”, taking that last, one way trip to “lay me down to rust.”

It may not get the mainstream attention it deserves, but in its poetic imagery, emotional journey and musical strength, this is unquestionably Cleaves’ masterpiece. Turn up the speakers and let it haunt you.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Already Gone’ – live:


SLAID CLEAVES STILL FIGHTING THE WARSlaid Cleaves has a novelist’s eye and a poet’s heart. Twenty years into his career, the celebrated songwriter’s new release Still Fighting the War shows an artist in peak form. Cleaves new collection of songs have carefully chiselled musical arrangements and wild and vivid song content, portrayed as cinematic snapshots which draw the listener in further on every replay.

Earthy narratives like: “Men go off to war for a hundred reasons/ But they all come home with the same demons”, in the opening album track  is a good example of Cleaves songwriting talent. “Some you can keep at bay for a while/ Some will pin you to the floor/  You’ve been home for a couple of years now, buddy/ But you’re still fighting the war.” … Few artist can still deliver this sort of punch with such striking immediacy.

“I started ‘Still Fighting the War’ , Cleaves explains. four years ago and originally each verse was a separate character”“ Each verse was about getting swindled. One was about the economy, one was about a returning veteran, one was about a broken-up couple. It was too cumbersome, so I focused in on the soldier. The key that made it all work came as I was talking to my friend and occasional co-writer, Ron Coy. A troubled Vietnam vet buddy of his had recently passed away. Ron said, ‘All this time, it was like he was still fighting the war.’ I knew instantly that was the perfect way to summarise the song.”

“Normally when I start writing a new batch, a theme starts to emerge after three or four songs”“ says Cleaves, who built an unlikely success story from scratch after moving to Austin, Texas, from Maine two decades ago. “This time around I thought, I’m just gonna write where the muse takes me and each song will be its own thing. So I ended up with a CD that has a bit more variety on it compared to my previous releases. Half the songs are about struggle and perseverance and half are all over the place, some tongue-in-cheek stuff, a gospel song, a Texas pride song.”

All in all a great folking release that has been a constant musical companion to us for the last few month. We highly recommend that you buy the CD or download the album from the picture link below.

The new debut album from Dan Raza

Dan has already established a considerable reputation on the UK singer songwriter and folk roots scene. His distinctive approach has won him many fans and led to his supporting Joan Armatrading on a recent European tour, as well as opening for artists such as Mary Gauthier, Badly Drawn Boy, Cara Dillon, Chris Farlowe and Slaid Cleaves at concerts throughout the UK and USA. He also had a song, Every Little Dog endorsed by Neil Young when Shakey chose it for his ‘Living with War’ website.

His live performances are noted for their strong emotional impact and his songs are informed by literary influences such as Ben Okri and also the influence of painters like Marc Chagall. Indeed, Dan’s songs receive colourful treatment on this his first album. From the enigmatic longing of 40 Miles to the vibrant energy of Cool Dark Night and No-One Shed A Tear, the intense originality of his writing is balanced by strong and varied musical texture.

Dan is of mixed Indian and British origin. Many of his songs draw on images from his turbulent childhood and reflect on a search for belonging that remains elusive. There is a wistfulness and yearning at the heart of his writing which reveals itself strongly in songs like Home, Again. The lyrics of this track look back on his journey since moving away from his native Bedfordshire as a teenager and see him trying to make peace with his roots. In a similar vein is Rivertown which follows one man’s restless spirit as he travels through the rubble of the past trying to make sense of where he’s been so he can see where he’s going. The song has an almost supernatural quality and lyrics that fuse otherworldly images with an undertone of loss: ‘help me sweep the ashes from the floor/help me see the way I did before.’ The record concludes with the beautiful closing track, Can’t Go Back, which features the West African Griot musician, Mosi Conde, on kora. Written in Texas while on tour, it was inspired by the themes of displacement he heard in so many country songs while there and the personal experience of leaving behind all he knew, to follow someone, only to see it come apart.

A chance meeting at a gig in South London led Dan to record his debut album with Charlie Hart, who has worked previously with Ronnie Lane, Ian Dury, Eric Clapton and Mose Allison. It features a stellar array of guest appearances from Geraint Watkins (Van Morrison, Paul McCartney), BJ Cole (Dolly Parton, Martin Simpson) Steve Simpson (Eric Bibb, Ronnie Lane), Frank Mead (Albert King, Eric Clapton) and Mosi Conde (Mory Kante, Salif Keita).

Dan Raza has waited a long time to make his first full album after earning plaudits from some of the most notable songwriters on both sides of the Atlantic. There is no doubt he has a lot of promise. This is the first clue to what he might do with it.

 “One of the best support acts I’ve seen in two or three years…an artist that makes you take note and listen to the songs.” Slaid Cleaves

Artist Web link: