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Criticize ZZ Top all you want for shamelessly throwing around their hits “Legs” and “Sharp Dressed Man,” but don’t just put them off as washed up. Their latest, XXX, hits hard and hits often, and falls just shy of being great, mostly due to a few lame tunes that sound like so much ‘90s radio filler. The rest is very cool and bluesy, as has been the standard with ‘Top since their 1970 debut.


The guitars, courtesy of Billy Gibbons, are strong and rippin’ throughout, with a whole lot of wah-wah stuff and a (generally) great sense of where to put the nasty distortion and where to lay off. His soloing is full of rhythmic fills, and a barrage of wonderfully timed riffs. His slide playing is sparse on the album, which is a good thing, as slide playing on a blues-rock album can get old real fast.


The rhythm section is interesting to a point, but sometimes gets bogged down in a follow-the-leader-type sound, letting Gibbons’ rhythm dictate their patterns. This is occasionally acceptable, but again, it can get old real fast. The vocals are decent for the most part, and are better than decent a few times, as on “36-22-36.”


Two things about this album surprised me.


First: the tune “Dreadmonboogaloo” features sampling and programmed drumming. Not exactly what I think of when I think of ZZ Top. Sure, they’ve been hip to technology, such as delay and whatever else, but I did not expect them to delve this deep into the electronic age.


Second: There is a four song live set of previously unreleased material that works pretty well with the album as a whole. One song features Jeff Beck, and another is a cover of “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear,” made famous by that Elvis guy. The live material shows just how up-front and interesting Gibbons’ guitar work can be. He is a blues player, who just loves to pinch harmonics all over his soloing. This gives each solo a tight edge that, to my knowledge, has yet to be copied in popular music.


Yeah, I know, it’s ZZ Top, but that shouldn’t be a discouragement. This album is raucous and full of good tunes. If you ever liked ZZ Top, I think you’ll like this too. Unless all you liked was “Legs.” Then you might be disappointed.

Rating:

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