Slackeye Slim – El Santo Grial: La Pistola Piadosa (Music Review)
It’s interesting that I’ve recently bought two story-focused concept albums. The first was Fucked Up’s David Comes To Life, and now I have Slackeye Slim’s El Santo Grial: La Pistola Piadosa. It may be a coincidence, but I’m wondering if this is an emerging trend. Concept albums are a logical response to the modern focus on cheaply-purchased singles.
Albums like this have always had a tricky relationship with their stories. The repetitive verse-chorus-verse pattern of songs works against standard narrative structures, and song lyrics are generally expected to be circuitous and vague. El Santo Grial takes a very different approach to storytelling than any other album I’ve ever heard, basically by making the story a priority. Songs are either monologues or outright narration, with no almost no hidden meanings to be parsed from the lyrics. This is effectively a radio play set to music.
However, even radio plays have trouble attaining the sense of place and storytelling that Slackeye Slim manages here. The song structures are very simple, but the music and atmosphere are rich and beautifully textured. Nominally a gothic country-western work, this eschews traditional musical tropes to incorporate samples with a modern producer’s flair. Neighing horses, rambling town drunks, and haunting flutes set every scene from busy towns to deserted plains. The vision of a dangerous, mystical western land is firmly established in the music alone, leaving the lyrics free to focus on story.
That story is of a man who rants about the unfairness of life until being granted the holy Pistola Piadosa, which will make him the instrument of God’s vengeance. Silly but unique, this idea works largely because of its darkness and “be careful what you wish for” twist. The lyrics are compelling and often clever, driven by frontman Joe Franklin’s gravelly voice. He has a Firewater-meets-Tom Waits flair which is sometimes focused too much on the spoken word, but is nonetheless attention-grabbing.
The story drags at times, letting multiple songs cover plot points that a single one could have handled, but the varied soundscapes make up for these shortcomings. The ending is also a bit unsatisfying: There is a complete plot arc here, but the conclusion feels more like the beginning of something larger. The story itself ends up being entirely about one man’s struggle and self-discovery, without the larger battles and action that seem promised at times. But this truly is worth repeated listens all the way through, and how many albums can say that in this single-driven era?
A gothic “weird country”, Slackeye Slim won’t necessarily appeal to the people who normally listen to country music. Their sound is built on an honest appreciation for the sounds and traditions of the genre, though, and the result is something startlingly original.