A lavish limited edition celebration of the thirty year songwriting partnership of Rod Picott with Slaid Cleaves.
Release Date: 27th August 2021
Label: Welding Rod Records
Rod Picott is a grafter, a name you have maybe chanced upon across the years, maybe in the lower reaches of a festival review or in round-up of recent releases, maybe never much in the headlines but a perennial presence nonetheless. Slightly better known is songwriter Slaid Cleaves, the two singer-songwriters school friends and then, later, compatriots on the coffee-house circuit of their home state of Maine. If Cleaves is better known, put that down to his earlier start on any full-time career as a performer; Picott had work to do, hanging drywall (plasterboard) for 17 years ahead of the lure of playing becoming too strong. Throughout that time, and since, the two have collaborated, chucking songs between themselves, as well as each building their own body of work, individually and with others. Looking back, Picott, who has released 12 recordings under his own name, did a tally, realising the two had penned 25 songs together. Asking the question of his old buddy, and the permission was granted for this double disc, which also features one new Picott song, to which I’ll return.
Many of the songs have appeared, in earlier versions, on recordings made by one or other of the pair, but these are all new, giving a greater sense of congruence, and it is easier to consider them apart, rather than as any sense of old ground retrod. The backing is largely lean, often just Picott, his chameleonic voice, lonesome freight train harmonica, lots of it, and guitar, elsewhere backed by the additional guitars of Will Kimbrough and Matt Mauch, with bass and mandolin courtesy Lex Price and often rudimentary percussion, appropriately, from producer Neil Hubbard, who is not, incidentally, the Grease Band and Kokomo alumnus.
With the number of songs to parade, there is, inevitably, some sense of sameness about the material, which leaves the flavour it might have been a richer dish served over just the one disc. But that is to take away the point of the purpose: Picott wanted the result to be akin to a collectors edition, a limited edition at that, with a restricted number being manufactured and each copy individually bound, sealed, numbered and signed. And when they are gone, they are gone. No downloads and no vinyl. No streaming either, beyond review copies like this; altogether a defiantly retro and uncommercial statement, product, he says, for the fans who have sustained his years on the road.
He goes on: “The music industry has devoured itself. Musicians and songwriters are squeezed into a spot where if they don’t stream they feel like they can’t access the full potential of the audience that might be out there and if they do stream they basically give their work away. So, I decided I’m making the album as personal as possible. It will go from my hand to a listener’s hand. The only way you can hear this project is to buy it from me. It’s a way of keeping this piece of art between myself and the people who truly love my work.” (Even I feel slightly guilty reading that statement of intent!)
Opening at a pace with the mandolin and guitar strum of Warden Hotel, it has the overall feel of a Steve Earle song, perhaps a familiar one, but with a more refined vocal timbre, maybe a hybrid between Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen. An amiable start and interest is piqued. This is added to by the explanatory notes, with which I would encourage you to listen, spelling out the relationship between he and Cleaves. That they were learning their trades on the hoof is demonstrated well by Double Crossed Heart, where the unseen presence of Springsteen, again, looms large, especially in the style of the narrative. It’s short, I’m in.
The whole of this first disc continues in a similar vein, cherry picking influences, snatches of tunes, even the odd lyric, across the gamut of blue collar bar band ballads and their singers, drawing in thus also shades of John Hiatt, Dave Alvin, Peter Case and, yes, even Dylan, B. River Runs could even be an outtake from Blood On The Tracks, so much so that, in the notes, Picott even cites a/the lifted line, you won’t miss it, as being intentional. OK. Accept this as his warts and all exposition of a songwriter, or a pair of them, learning the trade and bowing to their masters. And for every “on the outskirts of town” (Not Going Down), there is a killer earlier line, that song also containing the line “I’ve had my share of snake-oil and sin“, that resonates more than the other reference.
Other highlights on the first disc include the twangy Jenny’s Alright, the plaintive Broke Down, and, especially, Dreams, which breaks a new and more individual ground. (This actually is one version you may wish to compare with either the Cleaves version or the earlier Picott version, being a much starker and bolder rendition .) Following immediately after Dreams comes the disc one closer, Beyond Love, which has both a glorious melody and searing guitar distorts, the two segueing into a memorable whole.
Disc two kicks off with another working man’s blues, Rust Belt Fields, and is a worthy entry to the canon of similarly themed songs. Hell, he’s as good as Springsteen on this one. Welding Burns continues the subject matter of tough lives led, Picott suggesting his father’s working life the template here. Here, it is the ambience of Tim Hardin I am feeling, which can be no bad thing. A run of perfectly respectable songs follow, but, in truth, it’s all just a little bit too monochrome, the hooks, for all the justifications, just a little too obvious as to what was on their listening radar.
However, jutting above this parapet are many delights still: the imagery of Drunken Barber’s Hand is little short of genius, the simple structure perfect to accentuate the lyric. Another is the bleak Take Home Pay, a terrifying tale of desperation that makes the work of Townes Van Zandt sound positively Leo Sayer-esque by comparison. The simple voice and guitar of Junkyard is possibly my favourite song here, the line “lay me down to rust” obliquely beautiful. Similarly spare is Fire Inside, with trilling mandolin adding counterpoint. Another in this same vein, Sparrow, closes the retrospective revisiting, a song inspired by, dedicated to and about the death of his mother.
The last song, the new song and solely from the pen of Picott, is a piece of autobiographical whimsy, about how he and Slaid set themselves up as a teen garage band, The Ballad Of The Magic Rats. So mawkish as to be likely entirely all true, context, I guess, is all. In the sterility of a headphone listening session, this sort of song is always going to be a challenge. But, played live in a bar, the audience, and maybe too the singer, sweaty and drunk, on a Friday or Saturday night, hell, I defy you not to be singing along.
Overall I want to like this collector’s piece more than I actually did. It has some terrific songs and the style of singing and playing is catnip for any lover of any of the names mentioned. His fan base will, rightly, adore it, it being his gift to them. Whether it will attract new listeners is less certain, his other recordings maybe a better first immersion. Where the songs are good they are very, very good, it may just be hard to find them in the absence of anything other than hard copy. But, this much I will say, when Rod Picott tours, and he will be, I would strongly commend catching him. Any lack of lustre on the record will buff up a treat in a live setting, that much I am sure.
Rod Picott Tour UK Dates September 2021:
1/9/21 : Grateful Freds @ The Atkinson, Southport.
2/9/21: Hen & Chickens, Bristol.
3/9/21: Empty Room Promotions, Thame.
4-5/9/21: Maverick Festival, Suffolk.
6/9/21: Kingsmead House, High Wycombe.
7/9/21: The Greystones, Sheffield.
8/9/21: The Doublet bar, Glasgow.
9/9/21: The Green Hotel, Kinross.
10/9/21: Thimblemill Library, B’ham. (T.B.C.)
11/9/21: Harpley Village Hall, Harpley.
12/9/21: The Royal Oak, Eccleshall.
13/9/21: Davenham Players Theatre, Northwich.
14/9/21:The Running Horse, Nottingham.
15/9/21: Ex-Serviceman’s Club, Leytonstone.
16/9/21: Calder Vale Country Club, Garstang.
17/9/21: Newbald Village Hall, Newbald
18/9/21: Gt. Easton Vilage Hall, Gt. Easton and
19/9/21: The Water Rats, Kings X, London
(Further details here)