In the past 25 years, ZZ Top has gone from playing Beaumont's Knights of Columbus Hall to touring the world's largest arenas and stadiums. The band's '80s albums - Eliminator, Afterburner, Recycler - sold millions of copies, as ZZ Top somewhat inexplicably became MTV favorites.
But in their hearts, guitarist Billy Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard have never strayed far from their bluesy, bar-band roots. These guys were grunge before grunge was cool.
On Rhythmeen, due in stores Tuesday, the "lil' old band from Texas" shakes loose some of the grungiest, stankiest rock 'n' roll to crawl out of the swamp since Tres Hombres back in '73.
Whether the album sells 5,000 copies, 500,000 or 5 million, this is how ZZ Top is supposed to sound. Never mind the synthesizers, drum machines and video cameras; just crank the amps up to 11 and let 'er rip.
Co-produced by Gibbons and longtime manager Bill Ham, much of Rhythmeen was recorded in Houston at the mysterious "John's House of Funk." The back-to-basics approach improves on the stripped-down sound of 1994's disappointing Antenna.
The opening track augments the band's bone-crunching boogie with layers of shakers, maracas and tambourines, to mean rhytmic effect. It is followed in short order by Bang Bang and Black Fly, both of which concern ZZ Top's favorite lyrical obsession.
The first single from the album, What's Up With That, catalogs life's predicaments to a soulful groove borrowed from the Staples Singers' Respect Yourself, right down to the "nah-nah" chorus.
Vincent Price Blues is a creepy, acid-blues jam that might have been inspired by ZZ Top's long-lost Texas garage band comrade, Roky Erickson.
In somewhat the same vein is She's Just Killing Me, which the band wrote for the soundtrack of the Robert Rodgriguez/Quentin Tarantino film, From Dusk Till Dawn.
It's been a while since our heroes put this much thought into constructing actual songs, even if Gibbons' mumbled vocals render the lyrics essentially irrelevant.
Every ZZ Top tune eventually comes to an excuse for Gibbons to solo over the jackhammer blues beats laid down by Hill and Beard.
And Rhythmeen might be Gibbons' finest hour as a guitarist. His cool "fuzzbox voodoo" and arsenal of nasty blues riffs elevate such otherwise pedestrian jams as Zipper Job and Hairdresser to minor masterpieces.
If you're looking for intellectual sophistication and musical subtlety, keep looking. But if all you really want is to rock out to a Rhythmeen, turn it up. Then turn it up some more.
(Three and one-half stars)
- Rick Mitchell
Houston Chronicle, 9/15/96