In recent years, ZZ Top has been following a disconcerting musical path. Either they have released an album that is incredible, or they have released an album that is unlistenable. Middle ground? There hasn't been much. The one constant is that ZZ Top's sales have not been matching the glory days of Eliminator and Afterburner - which is a shame. Their 1996 album Rhythmeen barely made a blip on the sales radar, but I thought that album was a major step forward for that little ol' band from Texas.
Now comes XXX, their first album in three years (and third for RCA). Unfortunately, with only a few exceptions, this disc hardly suggests that the band is on a serious comeback trail, and might even be worse than Antenna, which sounded like the band was wandering around without a musical roadmap.
The trio of guitarist Billy Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill and
drummer Frank Beard have stripped down ther sound (something
they've kind of been doing since the days of
Antenna) to the point where they sound like they're recording live without overdubs. The problem is that this leaves many of the tracks sounding naked and undeveloped; cuts like "Made Into A Movie" and "Trippin'" are songs that could have easily benefitted from a litle overdubbing of guitar parts.
Musically, ZZ Top is hurting. Their once cutesy-but-risqué song titles like "Tube Snake Boogie" had their time, but these days, tracks like "Poke Chop Sandwich" and "Crucifixx-A-Flat" are as stale as last week's donuts. It's almost as if ZZ Top forgot the magic words that turned earlier songs like these into enjoyable numbers. And the sexual asides as on "36-22-36" were cute once, but now it just sounds like three dirty old men dreaming of what once was.
This isn't to say that XXX is a complete failure. Tracks like "Beatbox" restore some faith in me that ZZ Top still has the power to make a decent song that infects your soul with its groove. "Dreadmon Boogoloo" comes close, but an instrumental from these guys? Admittedly, Gibbons and Hill's vocals are not as solid as they once were, but this isn't the thing I would have expected from them.
The album finally starts to come together on the four tracks which were recorded live (or at least they sound like they were; my advance copy has no liner notes, so I'll assume the crowd noise wasn't just faded in). "Sinpusher" sounds a lot like "Pincushion" from Antenna - and it's been some years since I listened to that album, so I'll admit a bit of ignorance here. Their take on "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear" is much more sinister than the version Elvis Presley made famous, but is interesting nonetheless. Likewise, "Hey Mr. Millionaire" and, to a lesser extent, "Belt Buckle," show the live power that ZZ Top has. (Surprisingly, this is the first time on record that ZZ Top has succeeded with the live setting; I thought the live set from Fandango was terrible.)
XXX is not the breakthrough album that ZZ Top had hoped for - hell, in some cases, this album serves as a suggestion that it might be time for these guys to hang it up. But there is enough of a spark to let you know that these guys are still alive - even if this album is mostly needing intensive care.
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