Album review: ZZ Top, Rhythmeen (1996)



By Steve Newton

I’m having lots of ’70s flashbacks lately, but they’re not being caused by ancient run-ins with tiny squares of coloured paper.

There’s a woman in the Straight editorial office researching the paper’s history, scanning every issue published since 1967, and right now she’s deeply entrenched in the cultural goings-on of ’76. Every time I walk by her desk I notice something like a big concert announcement for Bad Company (with guests Kansas!) at the Pacific Coliseum, or—believe it or not—Mac Davis as part of the PNE’s “Rock Spectacular”. Just the other day I spied an ad for ZZ Top, touring in support of its then-new Fandango album, and memories of that very same concert came flooding back…

In ’76 the “l’il old band from Texas” was cowboy-lean and mean, and its music was the same: sinewy, intense redneck boogie personified by short, sharp blasts of southern-fried raunch in the form of “Tush”, “Heard it on the X”, and “Beer Drinkers & Hellraisers”. This was before the music-video onslaught of the ’80s made the sharp-dressed band more famous for its Rip Van Winkle beards, matching outfits, and choreographed gestures than its music; back then ZZ Top’s bare-bones, good-ol’-boy approach was a refreshing backlash against the bombast of ’70s rock. Sure, there were a few cactuses and live rattlesnakes on stage to remind you of where these guys were from, but the focus was clearly on the intense delivery of stark, gutbucket blues-rock designed to get folks sweaty and involved.

But before the Straight’s music editor reaches over and cuffs me on the back of the head for turning this critique of a brand-new CD into a 20-years-late concert review, let’s get to the product at hand—and I do mean product. The new Rhythmeen is being touted—just like its predecessor Antenna was—as a return to ZZ Top’s gritty early sound, but I’m not so sure. Getting rid of the programming that marred mid-’80s hits like “Legs” doesn’t automatically put the group back in tenacious Tres Hombres territory, and there’s way too much filler among Rhythmeen’s 12 tracks and 54 minutes to give the impression of cutting off any fat.

The disc starts on a strong note with the snakey title track—replete with those low-down, nasty Billy Gibbons guitar tones of yore—but it’s followed up by the bogus-sounding “Bang Bang”. Then comes “Black Fly”, another ponderous number that sounds just like “Bang Bang” with different words, and not very inventive ones at that. I know these guys aren’t supposed to be lyrical heavies, but at least in the old days they’d sing about something—whether it was the freeing joy of holding some spare cash (“Just Got Paid”) or a weird rite of passage involving a steel cage in the back of a pickup truck (“Master of Sparks”). Now they’ve bottomed out on ideas to the point that they’re building songs around TV-sitcom one-liners, as in “What’s Up With That”.

If it wasn’t for the fact that Billy Gibbons’ unique guitar solos are still fun to hear, the tedious arrangements on this CD would make it a total write-off. The most engrossing tune, “She’s Just Killing Me”, is actually a retread from the From Dusk Till Dawn soundtrack.

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