Music

ZZ Top: 2006 Reissues

Much-needed reissues that don't answer every question that they need to.


ZZ Top

Tres Hombres

Label: Rhino
US Release Date: 2006-02-28
UK Release Date: 2006-02-27
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ZZ Top

Fandango!

Label: Rhino
UK Release Date: 2006-02-27
US Release Date: 2006-02-28
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Amazon
iTunes

ZZ Top act as a bit of a cautionary tale for me. When Eliminator hit the scene in 1983, I was a scant fourteen years old. And like everyone my age, I went nuts for its perfect blend of rock 'n' roll and '80s cool. Sure, there were the old-timers, probably pushing 20, who scoffed at the "new" ZZ Top, and how Eliminator sucked beyond belief compared to albums like Tres Hombres, Fandango, or Deguello. But what did they know? They were already out of high school, for god's sake, and if they wouldn't buy us beer, what good were they?

Well, obviously, they knew quite a bit, as ZZ Top's new sound reaped increasingly diminishing returns, and even after the band tried returning to their roots, it seemed like something was irrevocably lost. Despite some good songs along the way, ZZ Top failed to again reach the heights of their early albums. As for those early records, they turned out to be prime examples of blues-boogie, a veritable breeding ground for classic rock hits. Tres Hombres boasts "La Grange" (one of the best John Lee Hooker homages ever recorded) and the one-two punch of "Waitin' for the Bus/Jesus Just Left Chicago", and ranks as possibly their best overall album. For its part, Fandango features "Heard it on the X", "Blue Jean Blues", and "Tush", although its odd mix of live and studio cuts kills some of its momentum. On both records, lesser-known tracks like "Have You Heard?", "Master of Sparks", "Balinese", and "Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers" are far from filler.

The strength of those albums risked being lost, though, because ZZ Top inflicted another injury upon themselves in the '80s, with an infamous release: The ZZ Top Six Pack. The Six Pack collected the band's first five albums in one package, but with added drum and guitar effects to make them sound more hip. It might have sounded OK at the time (barely), but over the years, that little bit of gussyin' up has sounded increasingly dated, and has plagued ZZ Top's longtime fans, since those same mixes ended up on the CD releases of albums like Tres Hombres and Fandango!. At the time, I was trying in vain to talk my dad into buying me a CD player, so I ended up buying my early ZZ Top on vinyl, and while I might not have appreciated their unadulterated sound at the time, my appreciation definitely grew over the years for these straightforward recordings , where the guitars and drums didn't sound like they were recorded inside a trash can in Bon Jovi's basement. Unfortunately, I foolishly sold off a lot of vinyl, including my ZZ Top, years ago. Man, I could sure use them now.

These reissues of Tres Hombres and Fandango! claim to go back to the original master tapes, but the results don't jibe in a couple of places with my memory. Billy Gibbons still sounds like he's being goosed the first time he sings the line "Jesus just left Chicago..." and the drums that kick into "La Grange" sound a lot busier than on the old mixes. Maybe my memory's faulty, but I don't think so. And a comparison against The Best of ZZ Top, which has always served as a lone refuge on CD for longtime fans, confirms that the mixes on these remasters still hold differences. Is the warmer, fuller sound simply the result of remastering bringing the full range of instruments out of the original mixes, or is it the same old conscious effort to take the edge off of ZZ Top's raw Texas boogie?

I wish I could tell you. At this point, I can't even reassure fans that the almost sacred transition from "Waitin' for the Bus" to "Jesus Just Left Chicago" is intact. The promos that Rhino sent out are factory-pressed CD-R's, and they have a solid gap between the two songs. This isn't a minor concern. Other than Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker"/"Livin' Lovin' Maid", ZZ Top's transition from "Waitin' for the Bus" to "Jesus Just Left Chicago" is probably the most famous song combo in classic rock. Even the live bonus tracks that close out each disc (whcih are OK, but hardly essential) have gaps where there obviously shouldn't be any. It's possible that this will be fixed in the final product -- Rhino isn't known for slack releases -- but anyone who's concerned about such things should definitely find a way to take a listen before buying.

Granted, these do sound like an improvement over the Six Pack; for one thing, the drums finally sound like drums again (although it still sounds like there's some compression and reverb hanging around). Still, there are questions that can't be answered just yet. The real value in these rereleases is not only in the prospect of greatly improved sound, but also in a return to the ZZ Top of old. And in this case, that's not a small thing.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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