Slaid Cleaves’ 2000 album Broke Down was a revelation, a gritty, melancholy batch of rootsy story-songs about the erosion of relationships and the cost of dreams deferred. Wishbones, his first album in three years, proves a slightly more upbeat but ultimately less satisfying affair. Cleaves is an appealing singer, Jackson Browne with twang and gruffness, and he’s a fine song craftsman as well, wedding his mandolin- and dobro-driven melodies to literate, witty tales of loveable losers. But the litany of hard-luck stories gets a little monotonous after a while. Cleaves sings of gamblers, drunken brawlers, hobos riding the rails, prize fighters, jockeys and illegal immigrants—a colorful lot, to be sure. But one wonders if he hasn’t been reading too much Hemingway and Steinbeck and not enough about the lives of today’s ordinary people. Still, the story songs are his forte, and he stumbles when he moves into more autobiographical territory such as “Road Too Long,” a cliché-ridden lament about the life of the traveling musician. The title track is a fine alt.country anthem, reminiscent of early Steve Earle, and “New Year’s Day” is a rousing folk finale, full of joy and the celebration of life. In between lie a bunch of songs about losers—colorful, colloquial, and just a little too fanciful. My wish for Slaid Cleaves is that he’ll rediscover people instead of “characters.” Maybe next time.