The songwriting shines bright on Slaid Cleaves' first album of new material since 2004's "Wishbone." Of course, that's nothing new for the Austin resident, who makes his debut on the new Music Road label after many years on Rounder. But Cleaves has obviously spent his time away well (on the road) and has returned with a scorching batch of tunes.
Okay, scorch may be a bit over-the-top for Cleaves' often downbeat music, which more accurately simmers and sways behind poetic portraits and dark thoughts. Hard to Believe takes you to cold Old Milwaukee with "old ladies serving drinks inside with no color in their cheeks" and hookers outside trying to keep warm while the grizzled sing-a-long Tumbleweed Stew actually causes dust to come out of your speakers. The album's title comes from the opener, Cry, which perhaps best illustrates the appeal of Cleaves' aching-but-defiant tenor. The state-of-the-nation Beautiful Thing and highly evocative Green Mountains and Me are other standouts on this excellent collection.