Tag Archives: Music Review

The Reverend Horton Heat – REV

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.

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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. 

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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.

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For the record, I absolutely would have played “Spooky Boots”, “Smell of Gasoline” and “Chasing Rainbows” on my Psychobilly show.

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B+

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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.

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M.I.A. – Matangi

“If you wanna be me you need a manifesto” 

Does everyone remember Kala, M.I.A’s real critical breakthrough album, and the reason the radio knows her name? That’s “Bird Flu”, “Jimmy” and, of course, “Paper Planes“, if you need a refresher. And do you remember her manifesto, her clear artistic direction? That fusion of eastern and western musical influences, the bhangra breakdowns and sudden disco flourishes that, at times, rendered her music breathlessly novel to the same western audiences she relentlessly politically criticized (and simultaneously courted)? Of course we do – it’s the reason she’s successfully garnered enough attention to appear at the Super Bowl the same year she decided to flip off the Super Bowl. We loved M.I.A. for that one, right? We loved M.I.A. because she was pop and punk; catchy enough to dance to, controversial enough to appreciate intellectually and Hip-Hop fresh enough to maintain her superiority in both fields. That’s why it’s so damn frustrating, several years later, to watch that artistic focus fade gradually into oblivion. Through some perversion of logic, her music is growing less culturally aware and mature with age, to the point that we get this thing: Matangi, or as we can charitably call it “Not /\/\ /\ Y /\, Right?”


There’s nothing fun about coming down on M.I.A., trust me. But where we once got Kala, her effortless cultural pastiche hip-hop-dance-record-thing – the one where she managed to criticize international crime by posing as an international credit-card fraudster and having us all memorize the lyrics – here the political angle is sanded down to near-inanity. “Boom Skit” is the most politically incendiary thing here, shouting out North American passive anti “brown girl” racism the way it does, and that’s commendable! We don’t like racism, we can all generally agree that racism is some crap and ought to be avoided. “Okay, great, what else?” we’re inclined to ask, and Matangi has frustratingly little to say in addition. Perhaps the fact is simply that a large majority of the educated music-listening populace is post-racism at this point (and let’s face it, it’s not), but that doesn’t change the fact that her messages here largely lack any sort of poignant argument, when there’s an argument at all. And maybe there doesn’t have to be one! But on an album whose major hit – “Bad Girls” – features a fantastic video slamming anti-female-driving laws in the Middle East, we’re allowed to expect a greater level of actual political engagement within the lyricism, which simply never appears. Certainly she name drops plenty of countries to establish her international cred (that’s “Matangi”) reasserts her bad-assery with a decade’s worth of apparently Julian-Assange-approved ‘tent’ puns (“aTENTion”, sigh) and criticizes a lack of western self-reinvention via the world’s final Y.O.L.O. joke (on “Y.A.L.A.”, somehow), and all of that is interesting in its own way, but this is M.I.A., man! We’ve earned the right to expect more, and if she really feels like dropping an album largely devoid of political interest, we can at least expect fantastic songwriting and performance to carry us through, right?

Remarkably, even in all its frenetic genre-gymnastics and cross-cultural musical exchanges (and yes, there are plenty), Matangi still evades any sort of easy purchase for the listener. Naturally, the album varies: “Bad Girls” is as fantastic as it was, uh, last year, “Bring the Noize” is a legitimately fantastic strobing slap in the face, and “aTENTion” manages to sound like gladOS rapping, but there’s so little else to differentiate tracks musically that I find myself struggling to go back and recall each one’s name, never mind its lyricism – and it’s important to remember that M.I.A. is a rapper. “Matangi” is neat initially, but bears an unfortunate similarity to “Boyz” off Kala, and much of the rap in its latter movement is groan-inducing. “Come Walk With Me” will get stuck in your head for all the wrong reasons, and its first half is exactly the worst sort of laser-focused lovey pop we try to avoid from M.I.A.. Its last half is, bewilderingly, hardstyle that samples… a truck backing up and the Macbook volume-indicator. “aTENTion” is grammatically insufferable and rhythmically aimless, and was apparently co-written by Julian Assange following a particularly exciting google search on homophones. Some tracks, like the “Only 1 U” (which sadly feels longer than it is) and the staggering 10 combined minutes of “Exodus” (suitably epic, the first listen) and “Sexodus” (mystifying in its presence), are gratuitously repetitive and aimless enough to be painful on repeat listens. And perhaps I’ve mistaken myself in that last paragraph and there are a ton of clever political allusions throughout Matangi: the key issue quickly becomes that the album does nothing to endear itself aside from singles “Bad Girls” and “Bring the Noize”. If there are politics in here beyond the bluntly obvious, several listens simply aren’t bringing them to the fore. So much of Matangi feels rushed, and despite some fantastic production work – bhangra-core isn’t growing old any time soon – M.I.A. rarely makes any real impression at all, lyrically or vocally. As a case in point, one of the only strong melodies on the album I can recall offhand occurs on the Weeknd-waste “Exodus”… and even then, only because she sings it again as “Sexodus” half an hour later.

So does Matangi have an ace in the hole? It does, insofar as much of the production is brilliant: “Only 1 U” might be forgettable lyrically, but its the boom of its heavy beat and ritual chime, electric zap and plethora of other seemingly-random samples do much to endear it aurally. “Bad Girls” runs on a combination of bhangra beats, plucked strings, and a slithering club chant that’s nigh-impossible not to dig. “Bring the Noize” is simply a blast, and even “Matangi”s percussive ‘Matangi’ sampled choruses are fun and appropriately, excitingly foreign. “Lights”, to its credit, has some fun vocal harmonies going on, and some clever lyrical turns. Every track on the album jumps sporadically between production styles, beat constructions, traditional instruments and glitchy connections – and all of that is great  because no one has managed to steal this from M.I.A. just yet. Even Matangi‘s handful of slow tracks manage to feel suitably heavy – even if they fail to differentiate noticeably from one another. The issue isn’t that M.I.A. can’t write songs – she clearly can, and we’ve seen her do it successfully dozens of times before. Matangi suffers from a distinct lack of direction – and if her intended direction legitimately was “unfocused, overwhelming confusion” we have much bigger problems to discuss.

Matangi is, apparently by design, a dense and frequently frustrating listen. It’s certainly concentrated, despite running 15 tracks, and any extended listening period is appropriately exhausting. That said, Kala by its novelty was exhausting too, and managed to be exhausting without feeling stretched out, rushed or samey. Matangi suffers from all of this. Tracks fail to make individual impressions, and while beat production is often brilliant, vocal production is often shrill and irritating (instead of the no-doubt intended percussive). The Weeknd shows up for some reason and fails to utter words. This album is a full 15 tracks in length, and I can only name about 5 after roughly 5 listens. So while Matangi is no doubt novel, it also utterly fails to make an impression beyond acting as an appendage to M.I.A.’s discography. Yes it’s there, but we know she’s capable of so much better. M.I.A.’s brilliant, she can do it, and her fans deserve it. So let’s rewind to ‘better until Matangi is as forgotten as /\/\ /\ Y /\.  

C

Or, sigh, Vicki Leekx.

Published right here, December 2013.

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