Aged just 21, this is Oklahoma-born singer Parker Millsap’s official debut album (he self-released the limited edition Palisade in 2012, selling it from his van), but, from the opening track of his self-titled album, you’ll find it hard to believe he’s not been making music forever, so seasoned and assured is his writing and delivery while, primarily backed by upright bass player Michael Rose and fiddler Daniel Foulks, his soulful, gravel and bourbon voice carries a weight and experience way beyond his years.
Raised in a small town with a population of under 6000 and forged in the fires of a Pentecostal upbringing, Millsap trades in what has been tagged Red Dirt music, a stripped down blend of Southern soul, blues and country rooted in narrative driven, religion-streak songs of redemption, love and leaving laced with religion.
Indeed, the album opens with Old Time Religion, a loping country blues, a tale of a man baptised in and led to murder (strangling his wife with a banjo string) by a belief in Old Testament fire and brimstone, delivered with a Waitsian swing and featuring a mid-song gypsy violin solo and a blast of New Orleans horns. The moment in the song where launching into a new verse, he simply breathes the words ‘he’s got’ is unaccountably thrilling.
He sticks with the territory for Truck Stop Gospel, a fiddle-laced Little Feat-like rock ‘n’ rolling strut about a “God-fearing Christian on fire” trucker preaching the word, out to ‘modify’ the behaviour of all those he meets to “love my saviour” as it transforms into a piano pumping boogie.
It’s there too on When I Leave, a harmonica wailing Southern soul folk blues slouch about the End of Days where, no longer regarding himself as particularly religious, he sings, pragmatically, “I just try to do the right thing, pray for rain, but not the lightning”, while, the melody borrowing from Otis Redding’s I Got Dreams To Remember, the slow, horns-burnished Memphis gospel-blues Forgive Me has its narrator confronting his darkest impulses and looking for answers and redemption. A similar theme, without the religious overtones, also informs the poignantly confessional The Villain where, to a simple, strings and horns-washed strum, he tells his lover “I don’t want to be the one who holds you back anymore, I don’t want to be the same piece of trash anymore”.
As well as religion, songs about getting out of a dead-end life looms large. Disappear is an easy rolling, chorus-friendly, almost Cajun-calypso love song in which a man prepares to take his wife and quit their small town life- and her mother for good (“I’ll hold the map, honey, if you steer, make like we were never here”), Yosemite a simple acoustic number with the narrator promising his lover things will get better, banking on a winning lottery ticket and for his train to come, while adding, “but for now I’m just here”, and the urgent Delta blues Land Of The Red Man, an ambivalent tribute to the state of his birth (Oklahoma is Choctaw apparently for Red Man) to the drive of slide guitar and harmonica.
Another propulsive choogling blues with scratchy bottleneck guitar, Quite Contrary draws specifically various nursery rhymes and childhood to make observation on the price adult life often exacts, a world where Mary Mary’s become a hooker and Alice has tracks on her arms from following a rabbit, toughing it out in the alley with the Cat and Fiddle becoming an image of heroin use, the fork holding a lighter underneath the spoon. Likewise, the Wizard Of Oz provides the springboard for At The Bar (Emerald City Blues), a pedal steel backed honky tonk waltz about trying to reconnect that finds the characters hanging out at some low rent bar, stuck in a melancholy melody.
A white hot new talent and unquestionably one of the year’s finest albums, were Thirty Tigers to reissue Palisade (on which Farmer’s Lament and Jackson’s In A Hole are knockouts), they could make it a double.
Review by: Mike Davies
Out Now via Okrahoma/Thirty Tigers
Order via Amazon