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. Let’s get to it.
“Still Fighting the War”
Music Road Records
Listening to the expertly crafted songs on his latest release “Still Fighting the War,” 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 Cleaves’ 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 (“Barely sleeping and can’t through to the VA on the phone”) 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. “Without Her” is a teardrop-sad song that speaks of the loss of a mate with Cleaves singing “Every sunrise and set / Every little chord I can fret / Is just a little dimmer / A glimmer, without her”. The album features two fine working class, blue collar anthems in “Rust Belt Fields” and “Welding Burns”, 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 “Texas Love Song” where he’s joined by Terri Hendrix on vocals and again on “God’s Own Yodeler” which pays tribute to the late Central Texas country singer Don Walser. “Still Fighting the War” 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 “Burn the Boats,” Seattle-based singer and songwriter Shelby Earl displayed a seasoned voice of vulnerability beyond her still somewhat early years. “Swift Arrows” 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 “Swift Arrows,” Earl tapped the talents of fellow Seattleite Damien Jurado to produce. The songs range from the stripped-down opener “Swift Arrows” which begins with simple piano strokes allowing Earl’s luminous voice plenty of room to roam. The segueing track, “Sea of Glass,” is a big sounding slice of Brill Building-styled girl pop on which Earl demonstrates she is right at home in that element. It’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 “Forget You Ever Wondered” to the lush balladry of “This Is Me Now,” “Blue Girl” and “If It Isn’t You.” 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.