"Anytime you put the three of us in a room together with some instruments, we're likely to start playing the blues." That's how guitarist Billy F. Gibbons describes the way ZZ TOP works. For twenty six years now, that Little Ol' Band from Texas has been playing rock n' roll with various shades of the blues for fans around the world. Sometimes it's been as raw as a Beale Street corner; other times Gibbons and his bandmates -- bassist Dusty HIll and drummer Frank Beard -- have dressed their licks up with the best colors that modern technology could provide.
Over the years, the only rule has been that there are no rules, and whichever direction the trio heads in has been governed by its collective gut rather than some master plan. As Dusty explains, "We can only play the way we play. If we played White Christmas on a record, you would probably be able to go, That's ZZ TOP! That's the only way we know how to play."
Rhythmeen, ZZ TOP's twelfth studio album -- and second for RCA, following 1994's platinum Antenna, is prototype of how the band plays at its best. The title, according to Billy, means "drawing from mean rhythms," and that's what Rhythmeen is, twelve songs full of tough, funky grooves from Dusty and Frank over which Billy lays his gritty electric guitar stylings -- music derived from the earthy blues of Elmore James and the forward thinking adventures of Jimi Hendrix.
What's clear is that on Rhythmeen ZZ TOP visits a place it's already been (and, frankly, has never left) but from a decidedly present point of view. Call it 1996 barroom; traditional sensibilities mixed with the energy of a band hitting its stride. As Guitar School puts it, "It's been a while since ZZ TOP displayed so much raw edge." In fact, Billy says, "Rhythmeen is intended as a cry from long-standing ZZ fans that they wanted it all the original way."
The roots of Rhythmeen were planted when film director Robert Rodriguez asked ZZ TOP to come up with a couple of songs for the soundtrack of his hit thriller From Dusk Till Dawn. The group responded with their 1975 classic "Mexican Blackbird" and a new song, "She's Just Killing Me" (which also appears on Rhythmeen). According to Billy, the band wrote and recorded the new song very quickly to meet Rodriguez's deatline, and intended to re-record it. Rodriguez insisted on keeping it the way it was and Billy says the whole process re-awakened something in him. "It got us thinking, do we really need to do so much smoothing and polishing these days?"
The rough n' tumble nature of Rhythmeen is evident from the first guitar blasts of the title track; ZZ TOP IS the "solid silver beat machine" Billy describes in the first verse and it's a useful reminder that this Little Ol' Band can make a mighty big sound. The first single, "What's Up With That," opens with a blast of bluesy harmonica and then settles into a soulful Stax groove that recalls the Staple Singers. Album Network states, Without a doubt the most powerful "power trio" ever. With the release of Rhythmeen, ZZ TOP return to their roots and do what they do best with this rockin' blues track.
"Vincent Price Blues" is a slow Frankenstein of a stomper that gives Billy room to stretch out on some epic guitar solos. Songs such as "She's Just Killing Me," "Bang Bang," "Loaded" and "Prettyhead" are stadium-shaking rockers, while industrial-tinged drums and a few touches of avant guitar grind make "Hummbucking, Part 2" one of ZZ TOP's most ambitious sonic explorations. And, of course, what would a ZZ TOP release be without a little bit of good-natured (but honest) lust? The group delivers that in "Zipper Job" (use your imagination), "Hairdresser" and "My Mind is Gone" -- all with the usual nudge and wink from behind the musicians' omnipresent shades.
Many of these elements have been in place since ZZ TOP stormed out of Houston in 1969 with its brand of rockin' blues. With radio hits such as "La Grange" and "Tush," the group was a favorite during the '70s; they filled stadiums across America as buffalo roamed and buzzards flew overhead during its worldwide Texas tour in 1976, a prototype for many a rock extravaganza that would follow.
Then a whole new generation caught on to ZZ TOP during the mid-'80s with the release of the multi-platinum Eliminator and Afterburner albums, and a string of hit singles -- and witty videos -- that included "Legs," "Gimme All Your Lovin," "Sharp Dressed Man" and "Rough Boy." The trio used its stratospheric statue to offer its services to NASA as the lounge band on the first space passenger shuttle.
At the same time, ZZ TOP re-paid its debt to the blues by launching a successful fundraising drive for the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi for which it commissioned the construction of a special guitar from a piece of timber from the nearby sharecropper's shack in which Muddy Waters was raised. The guitar, which the band christened "The Muddywood," was sent on The Muddywood World Tour to Hard Rock Cafe locations and is now on permanent display in the museum's new facilities in Clarksdale.
So it's wholly appropriate that on Rhythmeen, ZZ TOP has taken a step back towards its roots. And, as Dusty notes, "The best thing we can do is enjoy it, not analyze it. We don't talk a lot of things to death," he says. "When we write an album, it takes on a life of its own and we follow it. Our turning points probably aren't as sharply defined as a lot of people's; a lot of times, in retrospect, we can see where we turned a corner musically, but the way we do it is so natural that it's not something we notice at the time -- which is the best way to be." (end)