Sayles describes the content of this album as "thematic material that reflects his western travels and Michigan heritage" . It's a solid mix of his own songs and makeovers of traditional tunes.
The detailed and chatty sleeve notes (oddly enough, there's no lyric sheet) identify the location, mood and objective that lies behind each song. The songs express an affinity for the troubled history of the U.S.A as well as reflecting upon more contemporary concerns.
As a consequence, the mood switches between the laid back and the seriously jaunty. The vocals on downbeat songs are reminiscent of the dour delivery of Son Volt's Jay Farrar. On Coming Back, for instance, Sayles examines the grim lives of the citizens of Flint which has one of the highest murder rates in the U.S. and on Breathing Smoke he tells of the plight of petty criminals trained as fire fighters and destined to be repeat offenders if they don't perish first in dealing with California's wildfires.
More affirmative tunes include Portland Town a celebration of the beer and girls of that Oregon town and Fireball Mail, a sprightly cover of the lively bluegrass number written by Roy Acuff which was also performed by Flatt and Scriggs on their 1961 album Foggy Mountain Banjo. His sister, Melissa Risk, plays upright piano on two tracks - the aptly named Lazy Interlude by Hoagie Carmichael and a version of Sentimental Journey recorded on a vintage microphone.
Otherwise, Sayles plays all the instruments, his favourite being the dobro which you can hear on Awake From a Dream a melancholy tale of love and loss ("far from home far from right") and on Sweet Loving Mamma which he describes in no uncertain terms as a song about sex.
A homage to the murder ballad form (Calico Mountains) and a song written after watching The Last Waltz movie about The Band (Breaking Even) locate this album both geographically and stylistically. Sayles love of the strangeness and beauty of Americana is reflected throughout the 12 songs.
This is an album you can admire for its heart and soul, although it lacks the range and raw edge a more modern rock orientated approach would have given it.