One thing about ZZ Top's new album, "Recycler" -- the title pretty much tells the tale. The Texas trio's first album in five years serves up the refriedJohn Lee Hooker boogie that's always been at the heart of its sound (and hugely successful videos), but without the electronic overkill that marred its last two recordings. If anything, the album recalls the band's earliest releases, before the videos and multiple-platinum sales popularized its hirsute image and hip stoicism, and underscores bassist Dusty Hill's recently expressed opinion: "We're just a garage band that gets to play in some real big garages." (Capital Centre, for instance, where the band opens a two-night stand tonight.)
Three of the album's 10 tracks make it especially clear that ZZ Top is more interested in redefining its place in blues-rock than in breaking any new ground. "My Head's in Mississippi" is a surreal homage to Deep South blues, the band's unmistakable roots, with Billy Gibbons's sweeping guitar textures and groaning vocals conjuring echoes of Hooker, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. "2000 Blues," a minor-key soul ballad and the album's only reflective track, suggests that the sort of celebrity the band has enjoyed in recent years isn't all it's cracked up to be. And on "Doubleback," the album's finale, Gibbons couldn't state the trio's new game plan more plainly: "Lookin' high and low/ Don't know where to go/ I've got to double back, my friend/ The only way to find what I left behind/ I've got to double back again."
Subtract those songs from the album and you have seven lyrics that fall somewhere between the trio's best and worst work. The long hiatus certainly hasn't sharpened its songwriting talent or raised its consciousness any, as "Decision or Collision" makes painfully obvious: "She so fine/ makes me lose my mind/ I wish to apply my manhood/ I'll be glad/ to go to her bed/ and maybe the whole band could." Boy, you can just see the video director relishing the possibilities.
Still, by recycling some of its familiar riffs and themes, and mixing typically dreamlike scenarios with an endless boogie beat, the group has come up with some agreeable tunes, even if "Penthouse Eyes" and "Burger Man" (reminiscent of "Legs" and "Tube Snake Boogie," respectively) do sound awfully self-derivative at times.
The biggest improvement by far is the renewed emphasis on Gibbons's raucous guitar and the fundamental rhythms laid down by Hill and drummer Frank Beard. Stripped of clutter and sheen, the production allows the band to sound like the Texas power trio of old, and Gibbons has seldom played with more color and drive. Perhaps most important of all, ZZ Top sounds like it's happy to be back.
Frank Frost: 'Midnight Prowler' While older listeners may scoff at ZZ Top's brand of blues-and-boogie, even hard-core purists are applauding the group's efforts to promote Deep South blues and its support of the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Miss. Two of the finest living exponents of Delta blues -- harmonica player Frank Frost and guitarist Jack Johnson -- have just released albums that consistently reveal that music's enduring power and appeal. The two originally teamed up with drummer Sam Carr in Clarksdale nearly 30 years ago and have sporadically recorded (together and alone) ever since.
Johnson and Carr assist Frost on his latest, "Midnight Prowler" (Earwig), lending a rambunctious roadhouse flavor to an album that puts most of the competition to shame. The opening track, the vengeful and typically unvarnished "Gonna Put Her Down," quickly establishes Frost's ties to Sonny Boy Williamson and rural traditions. Like Williamson, Frost has a deceptively smooth voice that can suddenly erupt with emotion. He often favors a similar harmonica style too, full of thick, reverberating chords and vocal inflections.
Even so, Frost is no clone. The anger and pain he vents on this album, as well as the sexual tension, is so deeply felt that it's almost palpable. And besides, Frost's interests and influences are too diverse to make simple comparisons stick. He's no less convincing performing Slim Harpo's sensual "Scratch My Back" than he is when lamenting the loss of true love on the country ballad "Undertaker" or standing accused of betrayal on Little Walter's "Who Told You."
As for the band, Frost couldn't ask for much more in the way of down-home support. Johnson's pinched guitar tone and skittish solos add to the album's emotional wallop, while Carr's slapping buoyancy on drums makes the absence of a bassist virtually unnoticeable.
Jack Johnson: 'Daddy, When Is Mama Comin' Home?' Frost and Carr also appear on Johnson's new release, "Daddy, When Is Mama Comin' Home?" (Earwig), one of the most original, topical and idiosyncratic blues albums ever released. Not content to revive old songs, Johnson has composed his own lyrics -- and what a peculiar lot they are. One song is an unabashed ode to an airline, another is built around a goofy "Chinese" blues riff (seemingly inspired by kung fu flicks), and still others address the problems of AIDS, hunger, homelessness and domestic violence. Not your average song list, but then nothing about Johnson's searing guitar work, soulful voice or the album's horn-powered arrangements is average either.