"Painted On"


Lead singer and harmonica whiz Kim Wilson is the only member of the Fabulous Thunderbirds still on board from the lineup that surprised the pop music world by putting a blues single in the Top 10 in 1986. After releasing solo albums in 2001 and 2003, Wilson organized a new version of the T-Birds last year, and the band has released its first new studio album in eight years, "Painted On." With a largely anonymous lineup and the ugliest cover art in memory, it's not a promising package. But the music inside is an astonishing return to form, a dozen terrific tracks with the same sort of sharp hooks and fat grooves that propelled the band in 1986.

Wilson wrote half the songs with such Nashville pros as Gary Nicholson, Mike Henderson and Danny Tate; the other six songs include Waylon Jennings's "Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line" and such obscure R&B gems as Earl King's "Feeling My Way Around" and Joe Simon's "When I Am Gone." What the songs all have in common is a strong, simple melody and an equally simple, equally urgent plea to a lover that can be hammered home by a pounding beat.

Producer Steve Berlin (of Los Lobos) gets the band to play with a stripped-down unity focused on that beat, which Berlin then thickens with overtones. Following the model of the band's founding guitarist Jimmie Vaughan, new guitarists Kirk Eli Fletcher and Nick Curran, and ex-Blaster pianist Gene Taylor play within the groove instead of straying outside it. As a result, when Wilson starts shouting lustily about his "Rock Candy" or "Wild Cherry," the whole sextet acts as one, channeling its desire with single-minded purpose.

-- Geoffrey Himes

Appearing Friday at the Birchmere.

The Fabulous Thunderbirds show just how fabulous they are on "Painted On."