Austin singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves claims he's been a folk convert since busking in Ireland his junior year in high school, and the conventions of folk are all over his brand-new Broke Down (Philo)--from the death-song format of "Breakfast in Hell" to the haunting bluegrass harmonies on his cover of Del McCoury's "I Feel the Blues Moving In." He of course plays an acoustic guitar, and the production and musical support of longtime Lucinda Williams sideman Gurf Morlix lend the whole album a homespun elegance and precision. But Cleaves's quirky pop hooks and rhythmic turns of phrase set him apart from new folkies like Dar Williams and John Gorka as well as your average crusty old troubadour. And his bleak outlook and sharp eye for detail place him squarely in the company of country-rock storytellers like Alejandro Escovedo and Robbie Fulks. As on his previous album, No Angel Knows, Cleaves fills his tunes with losers struggling to overcome bad luck and poor judgment: the title track is about a woman who leaves a lackluster marriage for a pretty boy who cons her and leaves her broke, and "Cold and Lonely" describes a farmer who's lost his wife, his kids, and his crop; the narrator of "One Good Year" eyes the empty bottles on his floor on the first of January and laments how "one bad hand can devil a man." Yet even in the most futile situations the characters display grace and determination, and sometimes a sliver of actual optimism breaks through: In "Key Chain" the protagonist starts out with "plenty of keys," then splits with his wife, loses his house, and quits his job. But the one key he has left is to the car: "I'm turning that key / Lettin' out the clutch / I never did like / This town that much." And there's something in Cleaves's slightly ragged voice--and the way he pushes its limits a la Freedy Johnston--that adds an extra layer of empathy to each of these dire tales. He's performing solo here, in a singer-in-the-round format with fellow Austinites Peter Keane and Bill Passalacqua, but his catchy melodies should easily survive the stripped-down approach. Tuesday, 9 PM, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport; 773-525-2508.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Will Van Overbeck.