"Alphabet Girls, Vol. II" by Paul Slavens (June 24, State Fair Records) is the crystallization and distillation of the Nebraska born, Denton, TX-based artist’s long, varied, and accomplished career, complete with all of the requisite breakthroughs and disappointments.
On record, Slavens’s endurance is a listener’s treat. "Alphabet Girls, Vol. II" plays like the product of a “been everywhere, seen everything” guru-type somehow fitting all of his experience and education onto five lines of musical staff like some kind of trippy Tetris.
Funny, but serious. Jazz, but pop. Quirky, but grounded. "Alphabet Girls, Vol. II" (the title isn’t a red herring, the “girls” of "Vol. I" showed up twelve years ago) is all of these things and more.
“My goal was to make beautiful sounds,” Slavens said. “I am not too impressed with my singing or my playing. I am most interested in the compositions. That’s number one. I do not feel like I am a ‘songwriter,’ but rather a composer who sometimes works in song.”
A songwriter, but not.
Some other artists and their eras that Slavens names as touchstones include Burt Bacharach, early Kate Bush (“I always thought that she approached her music as a composer”), and later Scott Walker (“I love his unconventional use of orchestra”), adding, “I can’t downplay the influence that Chopin had on me.”
Opening "Alphabet Girls, Vol. II" with a reworking of the same piece that closed Vol. I, the instrumental overture “Naomi,” we are quickly whisked into a cinematic universe, which, like its predecessor, is an alphabetically ordered ode to women given their rightful place as rulers. Gentle orchestrations, deep sinewy cellos, plucked harp, and accordion contribute to this “sad waltz,” as Slavens calls it. Some will use the word “masterpiece” immediately, because how else to define work as detailed, studied, and mature as this?
But not. Not too mature.
Because at 60-years-old, it’s clear that Slavens has accomplished so much artistically and otherwise, that he just doesn’t give a fuck. As listeners, that’s the entire game. We’re better for that. To wit, the record quickly moves on from its delicate opening into “Ophelia,” a sorta nutso number made even stranger by how it was influenced by Slavens’s stir-crazy lockdown labor.
“I got into some kind of ‘state’ and completely reimagined and mutilated the recording,” Slavens remembers. “I was isolated, so I allowed myself to do some things I might not have,” he said of a song in which Prince Hamlet asks that the doomed Danish noblewoman “give a guy some slack” because, look, “I killed your Dad / I know, that’s bad / But there’s no reason / Why it has to drive you mad.”
If you’re not already completely on board with Slavens at two tracks into this journey, you’ll be thumbing a ride home for days, because we’re already far from civilization. Someone important in Slavens’s life who stood tall enough to ride this ride, and even in passing still looms large over the project, is Texas music icon, Trey Johnson, co-founder of Slavens’s label State Fair Records, and the man who was the main advocate behind bringing "Alphabet Girls, Vol. II" to completion.
“About three years ago, Trey started getting me gigs at (James Beard semifinalist and ‘Top Chef’ contestant) John Tesar’s steakhouse, playing standards,” Slavens recalls. “He was so helpful and the gig was sweet. As I got to know Trey, he heard me playing ‘Alphabet Girl’ songs and started encouraging me to finish the project.
“It was also Trey who suggested that I sing these songs myself,” Slavens continues. “Many of the vocals are first takes and the first time I sang the words, which is in stark contrast to the meticulous nature of the rest of the recording. It hit me really hard when Trey passed away. He was the one who believed in this project and made it happen.”
It is to Slavens’s credit that he endeavored to trust more “help” from the music industry. His highs and lows have been higher and lower than most of what passes as an indie- rock daydream.
The quick history that got Slavens to the good part sorta plays like this:
Formed a local band his mid-20s that went on to sell out the big rooms around town. Lost band members to more successful bands looking to climb the ladder. Re-grouped and hit it harder with more sell-out shows locally and record sales to match. Received promises and apologies from major players.
Slavens: “The first time a famous person made me believe they were gonna make me famous.”
Got desperate, signed a bad deal to make a “shitty- sounding” record of his best material, which the label promptly held hostage. Crowds dwindled. Lost more band members. Fired the manager. Changed their sound. Formed a new band. Made a record he loved. Got signed again.
Slavens: “That was the second time a famous person made me believe I was gonna be famous.”
That’s plenty to get the picture and likely more than Slavens wants to recall, so what about that good part?
Around this time, Slavens had a side hustle working as a commercial and voice-over actor. He had also started improvising in order to improve his auditions. Eventually signing with an agent, Slavens started working a lot while continuing to do improv with a group, and then began producing more than a dozen productions of his own.
Around this time, the Dallas public radio station KERA took an interest in Slavens, a relationship that has continued to this day, first at KERA, and then its music-based offshoot KXT, which has itself grown into a recognized, respected, and influential National Public Radio affiliate.
To date, “The Paul Slavens Show” has received “Best of Dallas” awards from the Dallas Observer in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012. Slavens also received the award for “Best DJ” from Dallas Observer in 2008, 2011 and 2014.
Even with his focus on his radio show, Slavens has continued music-making, starting a weekly residency at Denton venue Dan’s Silverleaf that is still happening. It’s here where he started getting into making up songs on the spot and where the genesis of what would become the “Alphabet Girls” project came to fruition, culminating with the release of Alphabet Girls, Vol. I in 2010.
Slavens: “Thousands of made up songs and a lot of whiskey.”
"Alphabet Girls, Vol. II" by Paul Slavens is scheduled for release on June 24 via State Fair Records preceded by the singles “X On My Heart” (May 20) and “Ophelia” (June 10).
“The Paul Slavens Show” has received “Best of Dallas”
awards from the Dallas Observer in 2008, 2009, 2010 and
2012. Slavens also received the award for “Best DJ” from
Dallas Observer in 2008, 2011 and 2014.