Old age and responsibility have finally caught up to Reverend Horton Heat. As fine a rockabilly trio as you’ll find, the band—guitarist Reverend Horton Heat (nee Jim Heath), upright bassist Jimbo Wallace, and drummer Scott Churilla—has been raising hell for nearly 15 years, playing 150-200 live shows a year, singing about fast cars, faster women, and, memorably, “bales of cocaine”. But the Rev’s 45 now, married with two kids, and, per the press packet accompanying Revival, the band’s eighth album, coping with the recent loss of his mother. None of this is to say that Revival is a somber, mid-life crisis record; on the contrary it rocks as hard as the rest of the band’s very fine body of work. But Revival does find the Rev mellowing, at least thematically.
The biggest example of a change on Revival: There’s only one song about cars, “Rumble Strip”, and in it, the Rev cautions a sleepy motorist to pull over and get some coffee or take a nap, lest he hurt himself or someone else. Clearly, this man has children. (By way of contrast, his 2002 album Lucky 7 featured four car tunes, with titles like “Suicide Doors” and “Like a Rocket”.) And in place of user-friendly songs like the aforementioned “Bales of Cocaine” (off 1993’s The Full Custom Gospel Sounds), there’s now the heroin lament “Indigo Friends” (“Everyone loses when heroin wins”. Well, duh.) Fortunately, the Rev’s tear-ass guitar keeps the song from completely turning into a mawkish afterschool special. Meanwhile, the quiet, straightahead country of “Someone in Heaven” (about Ma Heat) and the gentle ode to Mrs. Heat, “We Belong Forever”, prove the Rev is serious about his introspective side. Old fans may thrill to a side of the Rev rarely seen, but newbies may feel that the Heat has left them out in the cold.
That said, the band fares much better in the shallow end of the emotional pool. The instrumental opener “The Happy Camper” is a joyous slice of Bakersfield country that would please any Buck Owens fan, with Wallace’s blistering boom-chicka bass blazing a trail for the Rev’s shiny, clean guitar tones. Other lightweight highlights include the band coining a clever euphemism for missing work because of a hangover (“Callin’ in Twisted”) and taking the bold stance that girls from New York City are “a lot of fun” (“New York City Girls”). Meanwhile, on the midtempo “Honky Tonk Girl” the Rev boasts that he and the title character will have “kids and a tractor” to keep them happy. In fact, the only lightweight song that doesn’t work is the too-dopey-for-its-own-good “I’m Your Pet Rock” (“I came with instructions that made you laugh”, the Rev notes). I dig the tune’s surf guitar vibe, but with 15 tracks on a 40+ minute album, it feels like padding.
Revival, may not be Reverend Horton Heat’s finest hour, and at times veers into “ponderous rockabilly”, but there’s plenty of loose-limbed rock and upbeat guitar to please the loyal members of the Reverend’s flock.