The tradition of covering various artists for a new album has been a long-standing practice among musicians. But like anything else, there seems to be ebbs and flows when it comes to this practice. In recent years, looking at the past for songs that were under the radar or underappreciated has grown more frequent. Whether it was Wilco and Billy Bragg getting together for their covers of Woody Guthrie songs, or earlier this year when Springsteen looked to Pete Seeger for inspiration, the idea is as strong as ever. Now, Slaid Cleaves has decided that he will use songs he is writing for another day and another album, concentrating on the work of others for Unsung. “Since I was a kid, one of the most powerful experiences in my life was to be just knocked out by a song,” Cleaves writes on the back of the new album. “These days, the songs that knock me out are the ones I come across face to face, in my travels and in my home.” And with this latest album, produced by David Henry and Rod Picott, Cleaves does justice to some of these writers with very good performances.
The record begins with a strong, mid-tempo, roots-meets-Americana number entitled “Devil’s Lullaby” by Michael O’Connor. Cleaves starts off with a harmonica before getting off on the fantastically right track. It rarely lets up at any point or gets grander, instead just content to ride this groove for all it’s worth. Think of the best that Wilco fronted by Gary Louris or Golden Smog could come up, and it might not even compare with this one. The only problem is that you might find yourself hitting repeat one or four too many times it comes off so frigging well. From there, Cleaves lets his emotional guard down with the dusty, windswept, and precious “Another Kind of Blue”, written by Peter Keane, a fellow musician who started out with Cleaves. And it’s another keeper—a simple, tender, and elegant tune that just slides along a slow dance floor. It would sound as good at two in the afternoon as it would at three in the morning. This tone is revisited somewhat later on with the pretty and barren “Flowered Dresses” by Karen Poston. Perhaps the first oddity or black sheep of the album is the “om pah pah” feeling fueling the quirky “Everette”, which could be mistaken as a polished Tom Waits song (“God’s Away on Business”), but is actually penned by Steve Brooks.
Throughout the album, Cleaves delivers each of these songs with a lot of passion and flare, particularly on the gritty but catchy “Racecar Joe”, which hums along in a jugband-like style. The first average effort comes with the softer, wistful “Call It Sleep” that sounds like Cleaves is himself a bit tired and weary. But he gets back to his strengths with a strong “Millionaire”. The song, written by the great David Olney, would fit perfectly on the latest Kevin Welch, Kieran Kane, and Fats Kaplin, as it’s part murky folk and part blues. And the momentum continues with a cello-tinted “Fairest of Them All”, written by Ana Egge and featuring Mary Gauthier on backing vocals.
As the album reaches the homestretch, Cleaves saves his best for last, especially on the singer-songwriter nugget “Getaway Car”, which is prime alt.country material that contains hints of piano and distant pedal steel guitar. Here, the musician also seems to lead the song with his powerful vocal. The finale is a pleasing, poignant track called “Song for June”, written by JJ Baron on the day that he heard June Carter Cash passed away. It seems to be the perfect way to end an album that sounds like Cleaves’s best, even if his biggest problem wasn’t writing the songs, but separating the songwriting wheat from the chaff.