The R&B dance beat of the title song of the Fabulous Thunderbirds' new album "Hot Number" keeps getting stronger and stronger until Kim Wilson finally calls out, "You're a ..." The galloping beat comes to a sudden halt with Fran Christina's drum roll, and Jimmie Vaughan leaves a shivering guitar chord suspended in the air. Wilson sings, "... woo-o-o, hot number!" and the band crashes in, stronger than ever.
At an inspired moment like this, it's hard to believe anyone ever doubted that the blues belong in the Top 10. Just when everyone assumed the blues meant strained vocals and long guitar solos, the T-Birds are back to remind us that the blues can be relaxed, funny, sexy, succinct and danceable. All five of these qualities can be found in abundance on "Hot Number" (Epic, FZ 40818), which improves in every way on last year's "Tuff Enuff," the Texas quartet's commercial breakthrough.
England's Dave Edmunds, who produced that record, is back again at the board. He hasn't changed the T-Birds' sound so much as he has isolated their most appealing qualities and then emphasized them with state-of-the-art technology. There's a warmth to the harmonica and bass and a punch to the drums that weren't there before.
Edmunds recognized that the T-Birds were at their best when they got their barroom crowd up and dancing to Wilson's witty songs about the travails of romance. Last year Edmunds tried to update those songs in sleek, high-tech new-wave trappings; this year he has gone back to the source, Memphis, where he has recreated the classic southern soul sound of that city's Stax Records.
The Thunderbirds had a hit last year with Sam & Dave's "Wrap It Up"; the new album's first single is "Stand Back," Wilson's carbon copy of Sam & Dave's "Hold On, I'm Coming." Former Allman Brother Chuck Leavell, who is now part of the Thunderbirds' road band, plays the Booker T. organ, and the Memphis Horns resurrect their timeless parts. Distinguishing this version from the original, though, are Vaughan's meaner, more metallic blues guitar and Wilson's older, more relaxed vocal.
While Sam & Dave sounded like kids singing for kids, Wilson and the T-Birds sound like adults playing for adults. Wilson's funniest song, for example, is "Sofa Circuit," which describes the living accommodations faced by a man who's been thrown out of the house by his old lady. The midtempo Memphis soul groove is irresistible, but no teen-ager can fully appreciate the situation of a husband sleeping in his best friend's living room.
Similarly, the album's one oldie, a 1972 soul chestnut, finds Wilson singing out the title question, "How Do You Spell Love?" The whole band answers, "M-O-N-E-Y!" It's a funny but true bit of advice that's riveted in place by the convulsive beat and an ominous guitar riff by Vaughan.
As long as they were in Memphis, the Thunderbirds figured they should try some rockabilly, which is new territory for the band. They approach it in the form of NRBQ's "It Comes to Me Naturally" and Duke Robillard's "Don't Bother Tryin' to Steal Her Love." Both songs work surprisingly well, thanks largely to Leavell's boogie-woogie piano and to the T-Bird rhythm section's instinct for swing.
Mason Ruffner: 'Gypsy Blood' The commercial success of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and of Jimmie Vaughan's kid brother Stevie Ray has created a flurry of interest in Texas blues bands. One of the most interesting signings is Mason Ruffner, a singer-guitarist who grew up in Texas but who was signed while living in New Orleans. Both the blues guitar of his Texas roots and the melodic R&B of his New Orleans sojourn are apparent on his second album, "Gypsy Blood" (Epic, BFZ 40601).
It was produced by Dave Edmunds with the same approach he applied to the T-Birds. The songs emphasize simple, direct lyrics and blues grooves instead of the often Dylanesque songs of last year's underrated debut album "Mason Ruffner." Edmunds spotlights Ruffner's considerable guitar skills, which marry the Texas toughness of Albert Collins to the Louisiana lyricism of Earl King.
On both albums, Ruffner's blues are always built atop strong melodic themes -- like Wilson's, they're real songs instead of mere 12-bar vamps. For example, "Distant Thunder," the new album's best song, boasts a melancholy midtempo melody that builds persuasively not only in Ruffner's strong tenor vocal but also in his majestic guitar solo.
Several of the new songs are slight, bragging exercises, but the best join lead guitar melody and lyrics into an inspired whole. "Under Your Spell" reflects Ruffner's New Orleans stay not only in its voodoo lyrics and local references but also in the way the funky dance rhythms are linked up to the catchy melody.
"Dancin' on Top of the World" and "Baby, I Don't Care No More" are romantic revenge songs that pull no punches -- lyrically or musically. The combination of nasty blues guitar and tasty pop hooks make for the kind of sound that Eric Clapton used to pull off so effortlessly. One only hopes that Ruffner will return to his more ambitious lyrics next time out. He opens for Crosby, Stills & Nash at the Merriweather Post Pavilion tomorrow night.
Wild Seeds: 'Brave, Clean and Reverent' The Wild Seeds, who play Wednesday at the Roxy, are sort of an Austin version of the Replacements -- that is, they play loose and sloppy punk-rock but with a respect for tradition, melody and confession that they can't quite hide. Hints of the blues, Tex-Mex and country music sneak into the quartet's debut album, "Brave, Clean and Reverent" (Jungle, JB-1009).
"Sharlene," a trashy tribute to a sex queen of vague gender, opens the album with a sax-happy party atmosphere and a hint of Tex-Mex melody. The record then switches directions with "Big Mimosa Sky," a pretty country heartbreak song. From there it goes all over the map, but always with an obvious impatience to play hard and to say something urgent.
Like his vocals, Michael Hall's lyrics are full of moments of passionate clarity but also of unedited excess. The band plays the blues and country so well at times that one resents the lapses into garage-band self-indulgence. With any discipline at all the Wild Seeds could become a most interesting band.