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New releases from a couple of singer-songwriters are in the Ear Bliss mix this week. Slaid Cleaves is no stranger to these parts having made several Rhythm & Roots Festival appearances, not to mention multiple past performances at the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River. His new album is must-have goods. Seattle-based Shelby Earl is a relative newcomer who continues to make great strides on her sophomore album. Letâ€™s get to it.
â€śStill Fighting the Warâ€ť
Music Road Records
Listening to the expertly crafted songs on his latest release â€śStill Fighting the War,â€ť one could argue that Slaid Cleaves may just be one of the finest songwriters going. It has been four years since an album of new material from Cleaves, but he more than makes you forget that gap in time with his latest. In other words, it is welcomed. A native of Maine who has made his home in Austin, Texas for the last 20-plus years, Cleaves has always had the gift of being able to tweak the emotions in myriad ways with his songs and likeable voice. The 13 songs comprising Still Fighting the War have a personal quality to them. There is anger, there is sadness, there is humor, and there is love on this album, perhaps Cleavesâ€™ most politically leaning work yet. He leads it off on such a note with the title track which tells of the travails of all too many of the forgotten Iraq war vets, from the frustration of dealing with the VA (â€śBarely sleeping and canâ€™t through to the VA on the phoneâ€ť) to the inability to find a job to rejection for loans to just flat out giving up. It is hard hitting and Cleaves delivers it with complete empathy. â€śWithout Herâ€ť is a teardrop-sad song that speaks of the loss of a mate with Cleaves singing â€śEvery sunrise and set / Every little chord I can fret / Is just a little dimmer / A glimmer, without herâ€ť. The album features two fine working class, blue collar anthems in â€śRust Belt Fieldsâ€ť and â€śWelding Burnsâ€ť, each co-written with songwriter Rod Picott with whom Cleaves grew up with in Maine (and who is a highly talented tunesmith in his own right). Cleaves brings a little taste of Texas into the mix on â€śTexas Love Songâ€ť where heâ€™s joined by Terri Hendrix on vocals and again on â€śGodâ€™s Own Yodelerâ€ť which pays tribute to the late Central Texas country singer Don Walser. â€śStill Fighting the Warâ€ť is an album full of smart songs buoyed by terrific turns of phrase. It solidifies Cleaves being in the upper echelon when it comes to songwriters. Visit www.slaidcleaves.com.
Savage Man Records
On her 2011 solo debut â€śBurn the Boats,â€ť Seattle-based singer and songwriter Shelby Earl displayed a seasoned voice of vulnerability beyond her still somewhat early years. â€śSwift Arrowsâ€ť is the name of her follow-up release and like its predecessor, is a collection of melody-driven folk pop tunes with the emotive and sometimes breezy voice of Earl its centerpiece. For â€śSwift Arrows,â€ť Earl tapped the talents of fellow Seattleite Damien Jurado to produce. The songs range from the stripped-down opener â€śSwift Arrowsâ€ť which begins with simple piano strokes allowing Earlâ€™s luminous voice plenty of room to roam. The segueing track, â€śSea of Glass,â€ť is a big sounding slice of Brill Building-styled girl pop on which Earl demonstrates she is right at home in that element. Itâ€™s one of two in that style and each a catchy keeper. Together, they bring a lightness to the album in contrast to some of the darker, more personal fare the highlights of which range from the bare bones beauty of â€śForget You Ever Wonderedâ€ť to the lush balladry of â€śThis Is Me Now,â€ť â€śBlue Girlâ€ť and â€śIf It Isnâ€™t You.â€ť With Swift Arrows, Earl proves herself both a songwriter and voice to be reckoned with. Visit www.shelbyearl.com.
Dan Ferguson is a freelance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursdays from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on WRIU-FM 90.3.