Oct 052012
 

I get a lot of ribbing around these parts for my unabashed love of all things ZZ Top. Like every other right-thinking lover of music, though, in actual fact I categorically reject virtually every track the Zeez laid down between 1981 and… and… well, now.

But before we get to the howcum of my belief that ZZ Top’s new album, La Futura is the band’s best album since 1979’s Deguello, let’s pause for a moment to clamber into the rock and blues way-back machine. I’m going to pilot this thing back — way back, long before ZZ Top came into existence 43 years ago. Let’s head back together to the 1920s, when ZZ Top heroes like Robert Johnson plied their musical trade in sleazy bars and whorehouses across the deep South. Most of these blues OGs packed serious heat, just to make sure they emerged from their latest gig with all their body parts intact. They played for gangsters, they played for hustlers, they played for pimps, bootleggers, and corrupt country preachers — and their music was suitably, dangerously literal. Some of this stuff was downright freaky, it was so violent (didn’t we have a thread about “Stagger Lee” the other day?). No doubt, it celebrated the gangster lifestyle, but it wasn’t bullshit. It was real.

Robert Johnson, keepin' it real

Flash forward to 1973. ZZ Top released Tres Hombres — a celebration of beer drinking, hell raising, fucking, and, yes, redemption. I remember in college, me and my roommates (including a young Townsman Massimo) used to marvel at how terrifying the cast of characters on the inner record sleeve looked: it was a literal rogues’ gallery of rednecks with shotguns, semi-autos, and pistols, leaning against battered pickup trucks and leering at the camera through bloodshot eyes. I mean, it was funny for us East coast college pukes, coasting through school on our parents’ money, safely ensconced in our dorm rooms — these kinds of white trash crackers lived in somebody else’s world… didn’t they? Still, the fact that ZZ Top was writing music for and about them was vicariously thrilling, in the same way that gangsta rap would be for the generation of pampered white folk that would follow us into college a decade later.

So here’s my point: much of this new album is violent and exciting in the same way that Tres Hombres was — and even (sort of) in the same way Robert Johnson’s music was. Virtually every song is about dealing, or getting high, or toting a gun, or suffering the loneliness of the thug life. The album’s opening track, “I Gotsta Get Paid,” is a cover (of sorts) of an underground hip-hop anthem that chronicles a day in a dealer’s life. Typically (if weirdly), the track “Big Shiny Nine,” about a 9mm pistol, opens with the verse:

Big shiny nine, she’s mine all mine
Showin’ down the front of my old blue jeans
Big shiny nine she feel so fine
Waitin’ to impress my hippie queen

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… to which I say:  hey, Quentin Tarantino — two of your characters just wrote themselves. Love songs sing the praises of sleazy chicks who snort coke and smoke weed. In the album’s more reflective moments, Billy wonders aloud whether it’s even worth getting out of bed, or — in an inspired cover of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings‘ “It’s Too Easy Mañana” — just how tempting it is to just sit around the house and get fucked up. It’s inspiring, in a weird way; a singular vision of industry applied toward the hustle, freedom found in a fat bankroll and a cheap high; the love of guns and money.

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Of course, none of this would matter if the music didn’t support the message. I mean, come on:  when was the last time sixty-something  Billy Gibbons, Board member of the Houston Museum of Modern Art, ever got caught in a ghetto cross-fire? But here’s the miracle of the album: Billy and Rick Rubin didn’t waste our time making a gloriously retro, all-analog, recorded-in-a-country-shack return to the boogie party ZZ Top of old. No, they put a bridle on the explosive power of the Zeez of the 2000s, led it into waist-deep mud, and recorded it struggling to break free. The songs are chock-full of high-art, tape-spliced cuts and jabs. Guitars fade and rise, appear and vanish in an instant, like the Marfa lights. Arrangements are twisted, jarring, often strange. Much of the album is slow, the guitars are distorted to the point of disintegration, the drums sound like they were recorded in a box canyon… and the bass. Holy shit, the bass will crush your damn skull. God bless you, Rick Rubin, for finally shining a spotlight on Dusty Hill. He’s the miracle of this album.

So where are we at here, people? Well, look, the album isn’t a masterpiece from one end to the other. It’s got some moments where one’s patience for blues scales gets a bit frayed. But that’s true of all of the Zeez output. Even Tres Hombres has some needle-lifters. On the whole, though, this is the most focused, most relevant, most interesting, best written and best produced ZZ Top album in decades. I for one can’t stop listening to it.

HVB

p.s.:  speaking of listening to it — do yourself a favor and make sure you listen to the samples I’ve provided through some decent speakers or headphones. They’ll be necessary to really capture a lot of what makes this album so good.

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  16 Responses to “ZZ Top’s La Futura: More Songs About Guns, Drugs, and Loneliness”

  1. The sound of the first song is so good that I can handle how bad and upfront Gibbons’ voice is in the mix. It reminds me of the mix of Dylan’s voice on his new album. Are these cases of old guys not being able to hear themselves or making sure they’re heard. Thankfully there was nothing in the lyrics that jumped out at me as especially stupid.

    The second track also gets off to a great start. Then Gibbons starts singing in a mix so loud I can’t avoid hearing him. Thankfully he’s just singing, not trying to give off some sleazy, knowing vibe like I used to get from the band’s shiny late-’70s/early-’80s albums. The song is hindered by the sort of blooz-rock bombast that rarely appeals to me, but that’s just me. This is fine – and WAY better than I could have expected. The lyrics are even worth my attention.

    The opening couplet of “It’s Too Easy” and the slow blooz style are a challenge for me. I’m just not a bloozy guy, but bravo for exposing me to 3 songs I would never have listened to or enjoyed at all without the hope of teasing you about how bad they were. They’re NOT bad! Even “It’s Too Easy” is worth it for the amazing tone, echo, and reverb on the guitar solo. Nice stuff, and I got to chuckle over this line from your review:

    It’s got some moments where one’s patience for blues scales gets a bit frayed.

  2. hrrundivbakshi

    Thanks for listening… and for reading!

  3. Slim Jade

    Well, Bless My Staggerlee-lovin’-Robert-Crumb-Drawing-of-Robert-Johnson!

    I have to admit I would normally gloss over ZZ Top, snob that I am, but you led me right in, I checked it out, and enjoyed these.

    Is it me, or is music more prevalent and boundary-blurred, but these sounded quite like The Black Keys (until Billy gave them his best Tom Waits)?

  4. I’ve always been on Team Zeez (albeit as a second stringer) for their 70’s stuff. I don’t own much by them, and don’t know many deep cuts, but I generally like them.

    However, I have a big problem forgiving artists for their musical missteps, or more accurately, forgiving them for when they profit from, and then repeat, those missteps, as ZZ Top did throughout the 80’s. I really likes these tracks and they go a long way in healing the rift between me and the Top. (To give some perspective: I’m not sure if even a full-blown Faces reunion will enable me to forgive Rod Stewart.)

  5. misterioso

    Naturally, I am glad to hear that ZZ Top’s new record doesn’t completely suck but at this point my only interest in them centers on herds of cattle and flocks of buzzards, and visual proof thereof, ca. 1976.

  6. BigSteve

    Damn that dude can play the guitar! But I’m with Mod, I don’t get why the vocals are mixed so high.

    • hrrundivbakshi

      Yeah, I had to work hard not to turn my review into an ass-licking fan boy rant about just how much incredible guitar playing there is on this album. There is in fact a shit-ton of awesome guitar playing, for those who bonerize over that stuff.

  7. hrrundivbakshi

    This is actually pretty funny:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sdJ0IGw3zuY

    • Ha! That’s great!

      I’m not really bothered by the upfront vocals, I like bluesy stuff (not usually the kind played by white boys, but these guys and The Stones have always been the most notable exceptions for me) and lawd have mercy, those guitar tones (as much as the playing) are NASTY! Best production they’ve had since ’79. I like! A lot!

  8. if La Chartreuse is typical of the songs on ZZ Top’s album “La Futura” I can look forward to tight, guitar twanging and punchy lyrics. From the dramatic bluesy start.” If you got the blues I got the juice.: Written in standard blues form with grand guitar flourishes. It ROCKS!!!
    Speaking of violence in lyrics I propose Marty Robbin’s “El Paso”
    Here is an excerpt

    Challenged his right for the love of this maiden.
    Down went his hand for the gun that he wore.
    My challenge was answered in less than a heart-beat;
    The handsome young stranger lay dead on the floor.

    Just for a moment I stood there in silence,
    Shocked by the FOUL EVIL deed I had done.
    Many thoughts raced through my mind as I stood there;
    I had but one chance and that was to run.

    Out through the back door of Rosa’s I ran,
    Out where the horses were tied.
    I caught a good one.
    It looked like it could run.
    Up on its back
    And away I did ride,
    PS I don’t condone what happened in this song.

  9. I grew up on the 80’s gloss version of ZZ (Afterburner was one of the best concerts of the 1980’s for me) and then went back to the time when they were bad and nationwide and not in outer space. Rhythmeen was their back to the blues CD, but then Billy decided that they would be Jeff Beck and went all nutso for a few records and pissed off his fanbase.

    I LOVE the new CD. Opening the CD with a Hip-hop cover that is about selling Crack was a bold move (that’s what goes in the lighters on his dresser for those who are not particularly gangsta)

    The other song that stands out (other than the ones mentioned above) is Heartache In Blue, which sounds like it should be on Fandango.

    Big Shiny Nine and I Don’t Wanna Lose, Lose You are damn good too.

    I’m ok with Billy’s voice being a little rough, my question is WHERE IS DUSTY? He does not have a single lead vocal (one on of the Best Buy bonus tracks is his vocal)

 
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