Rest assured that the new breed of Americana-laced Texas singer-songwriter is in no danger of immediate extinction. Bearing names such as Pat, Jack, Jesse, Darden, Roger, Cory and Hadden, they come thundering across the Texas plains like an old-fashioned stampede. With Wishbones, Austinite Slaid Cleaves has left the rest of the herd in the dust.
Possessing a breathy, smooth voice at times reminiscent of piano rocker Ben Folds, Cleaves is aided by the guitar, bass and production of the industrious Gurf Morlix, as well as quality guest shots from mandolinist Billy Bright and organist (and ex-Small Faces member) Ian MacLagan. While two of his most recent efforts, For the Brave & Free and Broke Down, veered a bit toward the bland side, Wishbones is a far more muscular effort that plugs in with chugging rhythms and a real ensemble feel -- thanks mostly to Morlix's deft touches. More important, Cleaves's offbeat lyrics and character snapshots inject plenty of freshness into tried-and-true subjects such as life on the road ("Road Too Long"), alcoholism ("Drinkin' Days"), small towns in peril ("Below") and barstool wisdom ("Horses and Divorces"). In the last two numbers, "Borderline" and "New Year's Day," Cleaves even manages to write a song about the tragic plight of an illegal immigrant looking for work and one that's a farewell to a departed friend -- without dipping into maudlin sentiment.
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And "Drinkin' Days" certainly avoids that pitfall. In assessing his mistakes while on a bus trip to standardized housing in Huntsville, the song's protagonist reflects on his last bar fight thusly: "I didn't know that other guy was a cop / I guess I didn't care / Sometimes you gotta act like / You got a pair."
Likewise, on Wishbones, Cleaves finds his own cojones as a performer and, in the process, emerges out of the stampede the lead bull.