ZZ Top, La Futura. The Houston hombres set the dial on down home and nail 12 funky rock slices to the wall as strong as they ever have. There is not one extraneous guitar lick or cymbal crash to be found on this whole XXX album as Billy F Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard turn on the heat. Some may say that's because co-producer (with Gibbons) Rick Rubin brings in his minimalist expertise, but more likely Rubin just smiled at the Top while they kept it mean and lean, giving them the beards-up as they were hitting the righteous groove they're known for. Sometimes all you need to bring it all home is for someone to leave the porch light on so you can find your way in the back door.
Starting in 1969, ZZ Top learned that by boiling the blues to its essence, and then slathering that potent potion over a stripped-down rock trio they had hit the money and musical jackpot. Millions and millions of albums sold later, not to mention enough feet on the concert floors to fill a large city, the band has become a righteous institution without ever changing a member. A lot of that blue flame can be traced to Billy F (for Frederick if anyone wants to know) Gibbons' guitarstronics. He is a master bluesman but somehow takes all that inspiration and twists it into a piping-hot pretzel, and never comes across as looking backwards. Instead, he's been able to mix in just enough Space City sonics to give his notes an astral glow, making sure they stay covered in Buffalo Bayou mud. That is always a deadly combo plate.
For their first studio album in nine years the little ol' band from Texas sounds bigger than Dallas, with switchblade-sharp songs like "Chartreuse," "Flyin' High" and "Have a Little Mercy" right up there with any of their '70s classics. There's a decidedly pre-"Legs" attack to most of the new music, and if you ask the pre-MTV fans they couldn't be happier. Gibbons' voice, with its raspy allure sounding positively golden, has guided his boogie brothers to the promised land once again, skirting all the dangers of ending up claustrophonic. While it's not exactly back to la futura, it is pure-dee ZZ Top. And, as always, that's just right.
Steve Forbert, Over with You. In the singer-songwriter class of 1978, no one stood taller than this shortish and young-looking man from Meridian, Mississippi, birthplace of blue yodeler Jimmie Rodgers. Steve Forbert's first single "Going Down to Laurel" held all the promise of endless summer nights and a field full of chirping crickets. He easily took New York City by storm, even in the midst of all the CBGBs madness and new wave mania. By the time he had the hit single "Romeo's Tune," it looked like there would be no stopping the Southern man.
Guess again, because after that not everything went quite right. The good news, though, is that Forbert always made stellar music even if fewer people heard it. He even won a Grammy award for a tribute album to homeboy Rodgers. That the new album stands out as one of his best ever shouldn't surprise Steve Forbert fans, because songwriters like this often do get better as they get older. There is something in his Magnolia State blood that helps him craft lyrics that invade the heart, and speak to the yearning for love which has kept romantics in business for centuries. He is someone who has obviously learned joy cannot be called on, but instead the soul needs to be open to its appearance if and when it comes.
Producer Chris Goldsmith goes the distance to help Forbert frame these songs with an exquisite touch, never overplaying but always bringing out the essence of each. Musicians like Ben Sollee on cello and bass, organist Jason Yates, bassist Sheldon Gomberg and drummer Michael Jerome, with guest guitarist Ben Harper on three tracks, sound like a band that has been together for a decade, instinctively going where the song needs them to. This is music that isn't so much about the big fireworks in life, but instead the discovery that the smaller sparklers turn out to be the most fun. Light them up immediately.
Elvis Presley, I Am an Elvis Fan. For the first-ever fan-voted U.S. album from the Big E, over 250,000 voters sent in their favorite tracks by the King. Needless to say, there aren't any whopping surprises (no "Poor Boy" or "King Creole" on the set), but it's an interesting mix of music covering pretty much Presley's entire career. They span free-ranges from "Don't Be Cruel" to "If I Can Dream," and show how varied the Memphis man could be. He may have started out singing on the back of a truck but at the end it feels like he may as well have been on Mount Rushmore. That's a long, long way from Tupelo, Mississippi.
In the era of the Internet, there are endless ways of compiling albums that are becoming available, including personally picked collections at the click of a mouse. Forget waiting for the Greatest Hits releases as selected by the record label. Everyone is on their own now, which can be a good thing and a bad thing. What the company might have thought should be included didn't always stack up to what was really the best, but the fans didn't have a say. Until now. Would it surprise you that "The Wonder of You" is on this Presley retrospective? Or "Welcome to My World?" That "Love Me Tender" and "Little Sister" are missing? What do they say — there's no accounting for taste? The revolution has happened.
Elvis Presley lost a lot of his mojo after he came out of the Army and his mother had died. The movies became more vanilla, the material he recorded mostly matched the movies and even Presley himself lost the curl in his lip. The fact only five of the songs featured here are from the '50s says a lot about who the singer's most devoted fans are now. And there's a good chance a lot of his earliest followers might have missed the computer generation cut-off completely. The follow-up to I Am an Elvis Fan maybe should be an edition of only songs from his first five years, throwing in the Sun Records catalogue for good measure. Top pick: "Too Much" from the Love Me Tender EP, with that mesmerizing Scotty Moore guitar run. These not-so-mellow fellows were all on fire then, and for a few super-fine years it sounded like it would never go out.