If you’ve been following what’s gone on in the blues world for the past few years, you’ve already heard this and I’m stating the obvious. In case you’ve missed it, however, let me say it once again. The self-titled Watermelon Slim & The Workers is quite possibly the best blues album of this decade. What more could you want out of a 21st century blues platter than this?
That question also hints at the problem—how does anyone make a truly 21st century album of blues music, let alone a good one? Given the constrictions of the genre, like the set chord progressions, 50 year-old riffs, and a stable of stock images about as fresh as yesterday’s Milwaukee’s Best, imitators are numerous, and any innovator always lives in danger of leaving the blues behind.
Enter Watermelon Slim, nee William Homans, a transplant Oklahoman with enough intelligence to see his way out of the cliches—being a MENSA member will do that, or so I assume—and with enough romance not to mind using them to his advantage. On Slim, old is blended with new so seamlessly that you know you’re listening to the blues, but you also know that you’ve never heard these blues before. Welcome to blues in the 21st century.
The album opens with “Hard Times,” which encapsulates the disc’s many strengths. The track starts with only drums, banging out an Oklahoma-by-way-of-New-Orleans train rhythm and playing just long enough on their own to make you pay attention. Waves of ascending chords from a slide guitar fall in behind the beat, and then you hear Slim, with his rich, drawling baritone. Even from the first line, you can hear that when he sings, Homans’ mouth is moving faster than his lips, imparting a hang-dog quality to his vocals that can be at times playful and also pained. With the chorus of “hard times have come at last,” you know that Slim isn’t exactly breaking into unchartered thematic ground, but the sum of the musical parts forces you to listen anew. This might be a century-old genre, but as long as hard times are here, so are the blues. Slim slips in a sly reference to his psychiatrist where Muddy would have name-checked his John the Conqueror root in order to update the message just enough, but by giving a shout out to screwing, you know that Slim is old fashioned that way, too. “Hard Times” swings and rolls as much as any blues should, but the tempo never gets ahead of itself or succumbs to the myth of “faster is better.” By the time the well-arranged song ends, the listener knows that he’s listened to something that is unmistakably blues but also a tune he’s never quite heard before.
The rest of the album lives up that promise, with stunning original tunes that showcase breathtaking variety from track to track. There are songs with that sweet home Chicago crunch—see “Dumpster Blues” and “Mack Truck”—primitive R&B (“Check-Writing Woman”), country blues (“Frisco Line”), and with “Devil’s Cadillac” and “Juke Joint Woman,” even compelling detours into surf noir and early soul, respectively. And best of all, every one of these songs sounds authentic (whatever that means, exactly) and raw.
The band, the Workers, handles these mini-genre jumps easily and without ever breaking a sweat. They’re the prototypical road-tested, play-anything bunch of guys that have played one too many shady dives to let Slim’s musical demands fluster them. But in fact, the best member of the band might be Watermelon himself, who doubles on slide and harmonica. Listen to the instrumental, harp-led “Possum Hand,” and tell me you can’t compare it to Little Walter’s “Sad Hours” for blues feel, sense of timing, and languid sadness. (His harmonica work is so good, actually, that Slim deserves an award for not stuffing it into every track; we’re left wanting more.)
There are a couple quibbles to be found on this offering—does the world really need another studio version of “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” especially when the original material here is so stellar?—but they’re just nit-picking. If you add only one blues album to your collection in the coming months, or years, let it be this one.