When we imagine chaotic music, the blues isn't the first style to leap to mind, but great blues tunes have an element of bedlam, with instruments scurrying around each other, threatening to run away, while a commanding vocalist tries to contain everything. Alabama Slim continues that proud tradition on The Parlor.
Slim, born Milton Frazier in Vance, Alabama, played in bands as a young man, eventually settling in New Orleans, working tough day jobs as his music fell by the wayside. Little Freddie King never gave up on him, though, checking up on Slim. The two wound up living together in Dallas, post Hurricane Katrina, cutting tracks and touring. Slim, King, and drummer Ardie Dean, got into a studio in the summer of 2019, laying down The Parlor live to tape (but really, computer) in four hours. Drive-By Truckers/The Dexateens' Matt Patton and Squirrel Nut Zippers' Jimbo Mathus added bass, organ, and piano afterward. It feels like Slim could have recorded this in the 50s, but the crisp, balanced production allows you to hear the subtle details that make this such a beautiful album.
Slim's voice slides between speaking and singing, not in a rapping kind of way, but more like a tout trying to get you to enter someplace you shouldn't, Slim altering his cadence to maximize volume and hypnotism. The songs emphasize groove, just about entirely thanks to Dean's drumming, which works stoically in the background, holding everything together, while Slim's guitar meanders, like a treasure hunter looking for a well-hidden chest. The drums and post-production instruments provide the still canvas for Slim's musical paint.
"Midnight Rider" gallops along on Dean's steady drumming, brushes making them sound like trundling footsteps. Slim's voice is smooth, crooning over his asymetrical guitar lines that with a little more coldness, might be mistaken for jazz. "Someday Baby" features pristinely clean guitar and a sound like Howlin' Wolf's "Spoonful." But Slim pushes the tempo and has a gentler voice, more friendly neighbor walking past you than Wolf's hedonistic prowling. But Slim's depth of emotion is still impressive, to the point where the lyrics don't even matter. His tone sings the whole song for you. And Slim nails vocal desperation on "Down in the Bottom," a slow-for-him blues, with guitar licks that cascade out like a stone skipping out over a peaceful lake.
Sadly, Slim was scheduled to play the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, a huge break for someone in their 80s. COVID ended that opportunity, but no pandemic can stop his music, which is exceptional. It's easy to wish he had found his way to this music sooner, but you have to assume the long journey is part of what makes this album so good.