ZZ Top - Rhythmeen (1996)

Credits:

  • Billy Gibbons - Guitar and Lead Vocals
  • Dusty Hill - Bass and Vocals
  • Frank Beard - Drums and Vocals
  • Produced by Bill Ham and Billy Gibbons at Charletan's Hollywood, Ardent Studios Memphis, John's House of Funk, Houston 

Background

Well, folks, you voted for this one. Here it is!

I'll tell you right up front, I'm not a huge ZZ Top fan. I listen to ZZ Top for a change-of-pace. I like them, but they've never really been one of my favorite bands. I have some of their albums, but just a few. I'm not a big fan of Texas Blues. My taste in blues lies in the British rock blues stylings of Bluesbreaker/Cream-era Clapton and early Zeppelin. I think the beards, the shades, the car, the keychain, the trademark arm move — that whole ZZ Top mystique perpetuated by the string of Eliminator videos in the 80s — was rather silly. Add to that, that if you had MTV in the early 80s, you had Eliminator rammed down your throat until you were ready to puke. So I knew Eliminator, and was largely unimpressed. I didn't like the drum machine tempos. I wasn't into the three chord songs. Gibbons' vocals don't do much for me. I also knew that Billy had better guitar tone that what I was hearing on that album because I was aware of LaGrange, Cheap Sunglasses, and their pre-Eliminator hits. But I never explored Top much beyond that.

Then someone gave me a copy of Rhythmeen. And despite the lengthy disclaimer above, I gotta say, this is really one cool album! It has a great, down-n-dirty, vibe. If you're only aware of Eliminator, this is much grittier, and much nastier sounding album. It doesn't have Eliminator's overwhelming electronic percussion feel (though there are some tasty remnants). No, this is mostly a stripped-down and raw (though well-produced) three piece band. If you're aware of pre-Eliminator Top, this is grittier, nastier and again, better produced.

As I said in the Music Appreciation poll description: This album all about attitude and tone! When you talk about Billy Gibbons, you talk about TONE. Billy doesn't work up much of a sweat playing. He lets his tone do the work for him. So what is his tone like? Take a good long look at that jar of stuff on the album cover. It's thick, brown n' nasty. Exactly like the guitar tone and mood of this album. Billy's tone here is big, brown and tuned-down! He's got the Les Paul tuned down as far as C in places. If you don't understand brown tone, Rhythmeen is as brown as it gets! If you think of Van Halen I as brown sound, this is far, far, browner.

And if you don't understand what I mean by attitude in someone's playing — or if you want to inject more attitude into your own playing, this album is a veritable textbook. In Billy Gibbons, we have a guitarist who really isn't flashy at all. This is anti-shred. He's not about chops. He's very rhythmical in his leads. His note selection is quite simple, but it's in the way he plays the notes. He's not blazing through them. He's laying back and wrenching the rudest possible noises and simple melodies out of his guitar. He's playing with attitude. But unlike Gary Moore or Wolf Hoffmann, Gibbons' attitude isn't all intensity, aggression, and balls. Billy's attitude is more about about creating a vibe. These songs groove. It's Texas cool. It's like: Everything's cool. Ain't no effort t' play, so why work up a sweat? Ain't bothered to shave in 20 years. Ain't in no rush. We're just kicking back and riding this big ol' groove. Pass me 'nother Dos Equis and s'more of that barbecue.

So here is Rhythmeen. You want diversity? You want flash? You're definitely in the wrong place! The ZZ Top formula is real simple: Do ONE THING. Do it real well. Repeat. These songs all have the same feel and flavor. So much so, that I found it very difficult to make critical distinctions between them using descriptive text. But I gave it a shot.

Let's listen.

Track By Track (vocal cues in parentheses)

Rhythmeen (3:53) The title track is mid-paced grind. Almost a shuffle feel with the guitar part. It's a not a headbanger, but rather a head-nodder with a deceptive groove. There's usually a I-IV-V blues progression buried somewhere in most ZZ Top songs, and it's here too. Billy's distinctive voice is crude but effective. Guitar tone is very brown — almost no treble — even on the high strings. Guitar solo comes in after the chorus. He starts playing off the verse guitar parts, letting that low E (tuned-down to C) ring and rumble. A couple of breakdowns where the drum groove alters for effect. Then some doublestop stuff. Always leaves you wanting more. And you get a bit more toward the outro. Melodic and bluesy.

Bang Bang (4:28) A mid-paced riffer with a groove and a stop-start feel. Guitar is crunchy as hell. Real distorted and dirty. Nice use of rhythmic breaks and empty space to let the song breath. Solo is raw and rude over a halftime drum feel. Listen to them lay back and drag. He plays almost painfully slowly at times and that creates tension. Billy squeals a few pinched harmonics for emphasis.

Black Fly (3:31) Listen to the thick lead tone on the opening lick. That's what a Les Paul should sound like! A heavy shuffle groove beat. Great vibe. Cool verse guitar part. He chugs the low strings then plays a high string doublestop lick. The line between what is rhythm guitar and what is lead guitar is pretty thin here. Billy's just kind of playing around with the rhythm part, adding melody here and there. Listen to him thump away on those low strings on the outro. He refuses to play faster or wail away on a screaming melodic solo. He's playing it rhythmical.

What's Up With That (5:19) A rhythmically simpler song here. I-IV-V over a straight beat. Effected guitar part, harmonica. Another slow solo with double stops and a bit more melody. Less distorted tone here. In fact everything is low key and understated on this one.

Vincent Price Blues (6:04) Slow, plodding blues. Rude, loud, and distorted riff. Tuned down and brown again. Gibbons grunting out the vocals in a low gravely tone. All the Gibbons trademarks are here on this one. Slow, laid-back feel — I don't think you could get Billy to rush if he were wired on coke! Crunchy, rhythmical playing, double stops. Some melodic but rude blues licks with some pinched harmonics. Actually a bit flashier solo here from Billy. And again it's tone, tone, and more tone! As I said: the tone does a lot of the work. More rudeness at the end in the outro solo.

Zipper Job (4:14) Effected guitar again. Quicker tempo here. Again feels like a pretty straight beat, but the groove is there and deceptive. Solo is a little busier again. You get some unison bends some blues licks. More melody and attitude on a longer outro solo with a lot of pinched harmonics. Actually bit a flash playing — or as close as Billy gets to flash.

Hairdresser (3:48) Another tuned-down mid-paced riff that bounces along on the bass line, stopping and starting for effect. Listen to how the beat turns around. (She's hip to the latest bob, she give a good lather job.) There's a boingy sounding guitar part that comes and goes in this song playing a buh-buh-buh-buh, buh-buh-buh-buh part — you can hear it in a few breaks and on the song's last few notes. I think he uses a Fender Jaguar (or similar). Gibbons use that very different sound every now and then on albums. He plays off of it with the more familiar distorted humbucker guitar part. Another slow, crunchy solo with the effect on the guitar. A little more melodic than rhythmical this time around.

She's Just Killing Me (4:55) A more upbeat, straight driving tempo. More melodic on the solo here, but still laid back and bluesy.

My Mind is Gone (4:06) This one has the more electronic percussion feel that Top sometimes employs along with the straight kit. Again, great guitar tones all over the place. Uses the repeating guitar effect on the choruses. Another characteristic Gibbons solo, starts out rhythmical on the low strings and builds, blurring the line between rhythm and lead playing.

Loaded (3:47) A bit quicker-paced song. Some cool rhythms going on here. Interesting guitar effect here — all fuzzed out and broken up — almost like bad signal from an intermittent guitar cable. This is typical Gibbons — take some fart or mistake of a sound, and use it in a song. That, in itself, my friends is attitude. Billy IS the Black Fly 'zizzin' around your head. More melodic use of double stops in the short lead. He really turns that 'bad signal sound' loose at the end of the song.

Pretty Head (4:37) Probably my favorite of the nonesensical lyrics on this album. A raunchy, straight-forward, heavy blues in the same vein as the previous Vincent Price Blues. Tuned down and brown as hell. At this point, were you really expecting anything different? Solo: unison bends into some slow melodic blues licks. Rinse and repeat. Rude, raunch, squeals, just milking the hell out of the notes.

Humbucking Part 2 (5:13) (I don't know where part one is, so don't ask me.) Just when you thought the mood and tone couldn't get any raunchier and browner (respectively), they do. Another interesting, deceptive groove rhythm. I find my foot's tapping. Another solo that's almost as much rhythm part as it is solo.

Summary

CLEARLY a departure from a typical Dinosaur Rock Guitar album. Rhythmeen presents a totally different mood than aggressive hard rock and heavy metal. Make no mistake:

Rhythmeen is Raunchy Texas blues. Period.

Never say I told you otherwise!

The guitar work isn't flashy. It is the polar opposite of Yngwie. In general, Billy Gibbons' playing lacks the melody, chops, and intensity that I value most. I like guys who bleed through their guitar, and Billy's just "too cool" for me! But there are definite lessons here to learn and apply. The art of laying back, creating mood, simple but effective rhythms, using crunch, wielding tone like a sledge hammer, and injecting attitude are just as valuable as being able to shred. If you can do both, and blend the two, you can rule! So if you're looking for change of mood from balls-out rock metal to something a little subtler, a bit more understated, Rhythmeen is an excellent choice. I need an album like this! But I don't need ten of them.

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By Dinosaur David B. Copyright ©2002 All rights reserved.