They Put the "Fun" in "Fundamental"... and the "Mental" Too
As I write this, the sky is a weird shade of purplish orange, and chunks of burning lasagne are falling from the sky. Beelzebub has just awakened, scratched himself, threw a whiz, and checked the Weather Channel only to find that seven inches of snow are expected. A wingéd pig just landed in my backyard. Cops are kneeling and kissing the feet of priests, and the Queer Eye guys are throwing up at the sight of that. Yep, it’s all coming to an end.
Apparently, this whole world-coming-to-an-end thing is my fault, because I just threw my most politically correct choice (female, foreign, techno all at the same time!) off of my Top Ten Albums list, in favor of this record by ZZ Top. I was afraid something like this would happen. I’m sorry, everyone.
ZZ Top is, arguably, the uncoolest band of all time. I mean, if Journey or Foreigner came out with something new, at least I’d get hipster perversity points for it. But ZZ Top has been around for a million years, all over uncool FM rock radio in my grade school years, clearly sold out in a big way when I was in high school with “Gimme All Your Lovin’” and “Sharp Dressed Man” and all the videos with the hott chixxx and stuff; and they have the effrontery to still exist, still putting out albums every year or two or so. That’s just wrong, right? They should have disappeared a long time ago, just like the two different musics they have championed: Tex-Mex blues boogie rock, and synth-based new-wave boogie rock.
At least, that’s what a lot of my friends think. I’ve been yelled at by at least seven different people for even considering this record. My friend Jesse writes in from Sweden: “ZZ Top? I’ve only been gone for a few months. What the hell is happening to you over there?” My brother calls me up and does the John Lee Hooker-derived “hau hau hau hau” laugh from “La Grange”. My wife has looked up the legalities of having me committed to a mental institution. My children hang their heads in shame and wear paper bags on their heads. (Okay, the last two aren’t really “new” occurrences, per se.)
But none of these smarty-pants types have ever actually heard Mescalero. If they had, they’d understand. They’ve just never heard “Buck Nekkid”, a song that really reduces everything to its basic essence by establishing a syncopated blues shuffle of great ferocity, and then adding a bit of philosophy to it all: “Twenty-six chicks all tied in a knot / Ain’t all good, but it’s all we got / So get nekkid.” My friends must not have heard this, because there’s no human way to hear it and not rock out to it.
Maybe it’s just that people are afraid to rock out non-ironically anymore. The Darkness dreams of someday being able to knock out “Two Ways to Play”, with its big fat power-chord progression stolen from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (who stole it from ZZ Top in the first place) (I can’t actually prove that, by the way), and its drum sound fatter than anyone has dared to sound in maybe twenty years and its strangely poetic lyrics: “Can’t control the numbers / Can’t control your sexy ways / I can’t control my inner thunder / It makes me wander round for days”. And, no offense to certain PopMatters editor-in-chiefs, but Jet would give their genitalia on the spot to JUST ONCE rock as hard as “What It Is Kid”, which is just a gauntlet throwdown to all the bands like Jet and the Darkness anyway: “I’m lookin’ suave, I need a shave / But I ain’t ready to behave.” It’s best to hear Mr. Billy Gibbons intone this, too, because he pronounces “suave” to rhyme with “shave” and “behave”. I think this is on purpose. Either way, though, the absolutely FILTHY-ASS guitar solo makes you understand what he’s after: complete world domination.
But you could expect ZZ Top at least to rock. What you might not be expecting is how they can still pull off a Mexican waltz. “Que Lastima” is 2003’s best drinking song by about 1.000.000 kilometros, and is the new tune most likely to be sung by me and my brothers when we get stinking drunk, translating as it does to “We have beer but we have no women, what a shame, what a shame, what a shame.” And “Goin’ So Good” kinda counts in this category even though it’s more 6/8 Otis Redding soul ballad, because they start off “uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis” while someone pops a beer. You’ll be surprised by how sad this song actually is, how much heart these old dudes can still put into things when they want to…
Actually, you won’t be surprised. You are far too cool to listen to this. You won’t actually go down to the store and purchase this record—you’re too busy trying to have fun listening to your indie pop records, straining to discover joy in someone’s whiny pain. So you’ll never really get to hear how Gibbons Hill and Beard can still get down Duane Eddy instrumental-style to “Crunchy”, or how hilarious it is to hear the cumbia accordion enter in on “Alley-Gator”. I’d give all the indie pop I’ve heard this year for the chance to see you try to absorb the depth and scope of “Punk-Ass Boyfriend”. But I know you probably won’t.
Which is fine by me. The band won’t like it—they’d probably prefer you actually bought the thing—but they understand, because they’ve been uncool for so long that it’s almost tragic. Which is why they’re so wonderfully shameless as to pump out all these wonderful songs. “Me So Stupid” has some serious musical sophistication with its burbling computer rhythms and captured grunts as percussive hooks and solid tough guitar crashes, which justifies perfectly its gloriously aggressively defiantly dumb-ass lyrics: “I coulda had Miss August / Coulda had Miss May / Coulda had Miss September / But I waited till December.” I mean, how do you not love logic like this? How is this not the greatest thing ever recorded?
And how is it NOT perfect that they end this with a bonus unlisted track, a sincere (if not exactly “straight”) cover of “As Time Goes By”? Talk about how “the fundamental things apply”—that’s exactly what’s going on. These three insane Tejano mofos have not only put the “fun” back into “fundamental”... they’ve nailed the “mental” part too.
Well, here’s the thing. I’m probably not going to end up keeping this on my list, but not for any P.C. reasons or any attempt to look cool. (Gave that up long ago, highly recommend it.) No, what it is is that I’m a little afraid to ruin the ZZ mojo. They’ve gone for so long without anyone taking them seriously that it’s translated into this, a late-career distillation of everything that is joyous and ridiculous and silly about rock music. What if I go and put Mescalero on a list, thereby making it part of some kind of canon? What if others do this? What if this praise goes to their heads and they end up following this up with a concept record about their dead homies, or a screed about free trade, or a collaboration with Ruben Blades? No way am I gonna risk that.
All I can do is to tell you that there will be no funner record this year, nothing that rocks harder, and no better version of Lowell Fulson’s “Tramp”. Enjoy at your own risk. You might end up smiling or dancing around nekkid to it or something embarrassing or uncool like that.