Here’s a little piece of the Transylvanilla origin-story puzzle for you: a bunch of years back I went through radio DJ training with a local university radio station, wholly intent on starting a Psychobilly radio show – and if you just rolled your eyes like “what’s Psychobilly”, well, that was more or less the point. It turned out I had a face for radio and a voice for Journalism, so I ended up abandoning those DJ ambitions to pursue the sexy, drama-filled world of published criticism, but that doesn’t mean I failed to take it seriously: my hard drives are packed with Psychobilly straight across the board from The Creepshow to The Koffin Kats to, uh, Demented Are Go. I spent a lot of time, over a couple years, compiling psychobilly music, and whether we’re talking Klubfoot or Club Foot, The Meteors, The Quakes, The Cramps, Tiger Army or The Stray Cats, there is always room in that discussion for The Reverend Horton Heat.
Now, the argument can be reasonably made that The Rev isn’t really a Psychobilly band – they’re more of a really hard, loud, and fast blues-Country-Las-Vegas thing. That said, neither were The Cramps, and they’re credited for more or less starting the damn genre. And speaking of The Cramps, their lyrical influence hangs heavy over The Rev’s catalogue, with the Rev’s bizarre sense of humour, enthusiasm for liquor, and sexual fixations all freely acknowledged to have been lifted out of Lux Interior’s bag of tricks. Despite the subcultural similarities it’s worth nothing that’s more or less where The Rev’s similarities to The Cramps stop: caught somewhere between polished rockabilly, country, hard rock, blues, whiskey and Psychobilly itself, the act of going to a Reverend Horton Heat show can be something of a bewildering experience. My third (fourth?) was a couple weeks ago, and I’m still consistently blown away by Jim “The Reverend Horton” Heat(h)’s guitar virtuosity and dead-calm stage presence. Between expert slap-bassist Jimbo’s grand-standing double-bass tricks (he can throw it) and Jim’s cheshire-cat grin during every song’s lengthy solos, you’d swear the band wasn’t in their 29th year and releasing their 11th studio album. And yet here I am reviewing Rev for a band whose bassist joined up the year I was born, and who were already sufficiently self-aware when i was a kid to write and record “Hey Johnny Bravo”.
The odd thing about The Rev’s catalogue, and maybe this is obvious enough in the title and artwork for their latest album, is that their technical skill and lyrical consistency render them more or less ageless. It’s been almost three decades and Jim’s vocal range is effectively unchanged – he simply has a bit of a harder time hitting the harsh screams he’ll occasionally inject into tracks. That said, he’s absolute fire on rockabilly licks to begin with, and he’s only grown more freakishly comfortable with age. His stage presence during Psychobilly Freakout can be downright unsettlingly zen. The Reverend Horton Heat started dirty and offensive (their most obvious Psychobilly calling-card), and to a great degree they still very much are a group of scuffed-up dirty country-blues musicians, plying whiskey, sex and self-awareness for audience adoration (the formula works!). For a completely uninitiated fan– and this is extremely rare for nearly-30-year-old male-fronted rock bands – the order of The Reverend’s first 10 studio albums could be scrambled and likely leave the listener none the wiser. And so Jim Heath’s fountain of youth is a double-edged sword: an infinite well of riffs and dirty/desperate lyrical tropes to mine forevermore, but also manacles of rock-solid consistency largely discouraging the band from growing or experimenting in a significant way. We don’t listen to The Reverend Horton Heat to be shocked.
This is all to say that The Reverend Horton Heat is an extremely solid, technically proficient, stylistically acute and charmingly lowbrow Texan Guitar Band – and if you like REV, you have 10 other albums to go out and find for yourself. They’re the Ren and Stimpy of Texan country-rock, and just as divisive in their fan base. That said, REV does work hard to push the envelope, largely in terms of autobiographical content. You’ll get a sense of who Jim Heath is (or was) this time around that was more cleverly hidden on previous albums: “Smell of Gasoline” is about a tomboyish teenage girlfriend, “Never Gonna Stop It” gives us more in terms of Heath’s personal politics than his dozens of gamblin’ ballads ever have, “Zombie Dumb” is… okay, a formulaic Tiki-bar cocktail-jam with cool tom-tom features. But the introspection – intimated or otherwise – throughout REV is completely appreciated while it lasts. “Hardscrabble Woman” is a straight country-blues tune that tips its hat to its tough-as-nails protagonist with equal parts respect and admiration, bolstered by Tour Manager Hoss’ gorgeously understated rhythm vocals. “Spooky Boots” tells the charmingly-sad story of a biker that walks with a limp and falls in love with a woman named Spooky Boots, spending “every saturday hoping to see Spooky Boots in the hotel square in Santa Fe”. Sure it’s simple, but the songwriting is there with touching detail, and Heath’s tone echoes hollow and lonesome while Jimbo locks everything at an even trot. It’s a serious song and a sad one – though not slow – and brings a charming touch of mature sobriety to RHH’s often-straightforward catalogue. “Scenery Going By” reminds us that Heath has been exhaustively, perhaps forlornly, touring the world for 30 years or so without cease – a prescient bit of unexpected narrative given Heath’s biographical details, and a surprisingly sensitive moment from a man that later repeats that same adage on downright-vulnerable closer “Chasing Rainbows”, which may or may not be a love-letter to his departed wife.
In terms of sheer balance, of lowbrow jams like “Teach You How To Eat” and the latter and stronger sensitive tracks, REV stands out in a catalogue already over-packed with similar music. That’s an accomplishment after roughly 30 years in a rockabilly-country band, and not one that goes unnoticed by the fan base. It’s worth noting that at the show fans were singing along to unreleased songs just as excitedly as they were cheering the “Jonny B. Goode” cover Jimbo busted out, and there’s a lot to be said for The Reverend’s sheer cult impact. So while REV certainly isn’t new ground for the band, they approach the album with an increasing polish and maturity befitting of their position as the b-movie rock ’n’ roll stars they’ve slowly become. Surprisingly concise and balanced enough to show a comfortable vulnerability behind its bourbon-drenched exterior, REV is a strong addition to The Reverend Horton Heat’s massive catalogue. A few humorous Rev-classic nods, a few instrumental ragers and a surprising amount of heart make this their strongest showing in years.
For the record, I absolutely would have played “Spooky Boots”, “Smell of Gasoline” and “Chasing Rainbows” on my Psychobilly show.
REViewed (ugh) right here, January 2014.
TL;DR – If all you needed to know was “Is there a ‘Bales of Cocaine’ or a ‘Psychobilly Freakout’ on here?”, then the answer is no. But there is a song about having sex/cooking.