Rio Grande Mud
Warner Brothers Records, 1972
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/09/1999
Anyone who has read these reviews with any regularity knows I've often talked about the "sophomore slump", that letdown that one feels when listening to an artist's second release. Often, it just doesn't live up to the expectations that one walked away with following the debut effort.
Well, we're not gonna talk about that today. Instead, we're going to talk about an album that actually improved on the first effort - namely, Rio Grande Mud, the 1972 release from ZZ Top.
Their first effort, ZZ Top's First Album, had a very lazy feeling to it, and while it stayed very close to the blues roots that Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard have always promoted, it sounded like only half the effort that could have been applied was used in the studio. Just one album later, that all changed.
From the opening track, "Francine," ZZ Top come out swinging, but now with a little more of a pop rock sensibility intermixed with the blues heart of the music. This track and the following one, "Just Got Paid," showed how much ZZ Top grew as songwriters and as musicians in less than two years. (If you discovered The Best Of ZZ Top not long after the Eliminator craze, no doubt these are tracks you immediately fell for.)
But don't think that ZZ Top abandoned its blues roots. Tracks like "Mushmouth Shoutin'" and "Apologies To Pearly" show that they still worshipped the 12-bar style they were born with - only the delivery is much more lively. Gibbons shows how talented of a guitar player he is, whipping off lick after lick that are guaranteed to make your mouth water. (If the band happens to be reading, insert your own barbeque reference here.)
ZZ Top also show they know how to lay a slow groove down and lock the listener in for the duration, as demonstrated on "Sure Got Cold After The Rain Fell". Almost ballad-like in tempo, Gibbons, Hill and Beard show the musical tightness of the band through the progressive build of the song.
There are still a few minor weak points on Rio Grande Mud - "Chevrolet" and "Down Brownie" are not as strong as other tracks on the album - but this is still a major improvement over ZZ Top's First Album - and that wasn't wretched by any means. (I have this album - along with five others - on The ZZ Top Sixpack; the first two albums happen to be combined on the first CD. If you listen to the whole disc in one sitting, you can hear the break in the two albums without even consulting the track listing; the style shift is clear.)
Rio Grande Mud was the first album that really showed ZZ Top's commercial potential, but their greatest triumph - at least for the first half of their career - was yet to come.