Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Everything You Love About Slaid

By Michael Keating

It's been five years since Slaid Cleaves (favorite son of South
Berwick, Maine, turned Austin, Texas, troubadour) released an album of original songs. His last release, 2006's "Unsung," (Rounder) was a collection of cover songs by Cleaves friends and musical compatriots.

Released April 21, "Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away," (Music Road Records) is a return to form for one of America's best Alt-Country singer-songwriters sure to please old fans and garner new admirers.

As an added bonus, the disc includes beautiful cover art by another South Berwick, Maine native -- musician/artist Dan Blakeslee.

Here's a link to my review that appeared in the Portsmouth Herald's Spotlight magazine April 16.

Below are Slaid Cleaves' notes to the songs on the new release, courtesy of the press kit.


1. “Cry” (Slaid Cleaves)
That sprang from a couplet in the first verse: “Every man is a myth/every woman a dream.” I found those lines in my journal and had no recollection of writing them, but I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten them. As soon as I had most of the song together, I knew there was something special and deeply emotional about it.

2. “Hard to Believe” (Adam Carroll/Slaid Cleaves)
Adam Carroll came over to my house with some ideas for a song called “Old Town Rock n Roll.” He had a verse and a half, and we banged out two or three more, but neither of us was happy with it. But we both kept working on it, and he ended up ditching everything but the title of the song. I took the verses that we rejected, reworked them some, slapped a new tag line and title on it, and I got a whole new song, too. So out of one failed song, each of us got a good song.

3. “Beyond Love” (Slaid Cleaves/Rod Picott)
That’s a very stylized melody that I probably would have never come up with unless I was dreaming. Lyrically, it’s another very internal song; I was just poking at that tooth, that little bit of sadness that comes as you get older, when the flame of romance starts to dim a little bit. But the beautiful part is, it changes into something even more valuable. I wrote it with my buddy Rod Picott, who I wrote “Broke Down” with and a bunch of other songs.

4. “Green Mountains and Me” (Slaid Cleaves/David Farnsworth)
Dave Farnsworth is a guy I’ve known since my Maine open-mic days. He sent that song to me a couple of years ago in its original form, and I thought it had the potential to be really great. So I approached him and said, “Hey, I’ve got some ideas for this song; would you be willing to bang it back and forth a bit?” I wouldn’t do that with anybody else but an old friend, but I was thrilled with that song when we were through. I think it’s gorgeous.

5. “Run Jolee Run” (Ray Bonneville)
I originally considered that song for my Unsung covers record project in ’06, but I was trying too hard to sing it just like Ray Bonneville, and it just wasn’t coming across right. He’s such a blues man, and I’m not a blues man. So I put it aside for awhile, but it was still one of my favorite songs. Later I sent my buddy Rod an early version of this record, and he said, “It needs something sexy.” And I thought that “Run Jolee Run,” even though the subject matter isn’t sexy, had that kind of groove to it. And I thought, if there’s some way that I can make that work honestly in the context of who I am, it just might work. So I kept at it, and I finally figured it out.

6. “Dreams” (Slaid Cleaves/Rod Picott)
Rod and I used to sit down in a room and try to write together, like Jerry and George did on Seinfeld when they were writing their pilot about nothing. These days, we just kind of share a fragment or an idea and then go off on our own and mess with it. Rod had about half of those lyrics, and I took them to my hotel room and — boom — this melody popped out. Six months after I recorded it, I ended up going back to change some lyrics in the chorus at the last minute. It originally sounded ... well, a little too rainbows and flowers. Before we fixed it, we called it the “Kermit the Frog Song.”

7. “Black T Shirt” (Slaid Cleaves/Rod Picott)
Rod and I went to grade school through high school together, and we lived in this little blue collar town with some rough characters that we were enthralled with and afraid of at the same time. They were dangerous cats that we tried not to get beat up by, but we were always fascinated by those guys, and we’ve written quite a few songs about them over the years.

8. “Tumbleweed Stew” (Slaid Cleaves/Ron Coy/Michael O’Connor)
That’s a wacky little number that was started by my old friend, Wranglin’ Ron. He’s one of those bigger-than-life Texas characters — a bull in a China closet with a huge heart but a way of sometimes bumping people the wrong way. He used to call me up and leave funny messages on my cell phone, and I kept a log of them and some of his lines started ending up in my songs. So he suggested that couplet, “Where can a good man go crazy/where can a cowboy get stoned?” I went off on one of my little writing trips where I had two or three days to stare at those words, and I started concocting a little story about this character who just wants to have a little fun without getting into trouble.

9. “Twistin’” (Slaid Cleaves/Eric Blakely)
My friend Eric Blakely suggested the idea for that song after reading a story about a town in East Texas that had a hanging tree which people would flock to on hanging day, bringing the kids and selling lemonade and stuff. It’s a pretty gruesome part of our past that I was trying to catch in that song. I actually recorded a different version for Wishbones, but it didn’t fit for some reason. But I tweaked it over the years and decided it would fit the theme of this record just fine.

10. “Beautiful Thing” (Slaid Cleaves)
I’ve always been obsessed with political issues, and especially with the frustration and the cynicism that goes hand in hand with anything political today. But the last thing I wanted to do was pick up the flag from one side and preach to the converted. My goal was to design the song so it wouldn’t become obsolete. I like what Stephen King said about it being “reluctantly optimistic.” Maybe it comes from growing up listening to Springsteen, but I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that people keep at it, keep trying, despite every cloud of cynicism, regret and disappointment.

11. “Temporary” (Slaid Cleaves)
That’s another one of the dream songs on this record. I woke up with that melody in a hotel room, and remember stumbling to the laptop to get it down. That song kind of wraps up the mood of the whole record, which started with me looking at the new year in ’07 and thinking, “Man, I’ve really got it good now; there’s nothing left but just losing it all!” I really think it’s important to know that everything you have is temporary, so you have to enjoy it now.