Thursday, September 10, 2009


A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
September 11, 2009

On his new album, Laughin' & Cryin', released last week, The Reverend Horton Heat has slowed down a bit since his old psychobilly freakout days 20 years ago or so.

The man from Dallas is still capable of playing with wild energy. He proved that when I saw him at the Hootenanny festival in California a couple of months ago. But in his recordings through the years, he's become a little jazzier, maybe a little more country, and it sounds like he's paying more attention to his vocals. As he declares in one of the songs on his first album in five years (or at least his first non-Christmas album in that time), he's taken a definite stand on the great culture war between death-metal guys and rockabilly cats.

But The Rev. (whose real name is Jim Heath) still has a knack for machine-gun twang-guitar licks. And the man who introduced us to the concept of the "Big Dwarf Rodeo" all those years ago still has a love for crazy novelty songs. Laughin' & Cryin' is in fact built upon a foundation of topical songs, some of which have the potential to become Heat standards. Others stand a good chance of being remembered by Heat fans as weird curiosities.

One of those tunes is bound to become a favorite with New Mexico fans. "Ain't No Saguaro in Texas" is a musical complaint, featuring some Mexican-style accordion, about the fact that "Hollywood and misinformed artists" have the knack of depicting his home state as having tall saguaro cacti — which, in the U.S., only grows in Arizona and a small part of California. We've got the same problem in New Mexico. Sometimes politicians here who have hired out-of-state companies to do their ads find pictures of mighty saguaros decorating their campaign literature.

Speaking of Texas, another song on Laughin' and Cryin', "There's a Little Bit of Everything in Texas" sounds like Heat's making a serious bid to get a gig with his home state's tourism department.
Heat gives some good advice to parents in "Please Don't Take the Baby to the Liquor Store." This song reminds me of an old tune by the Dead Milkmen, "Let's Get the Baby High."

One of my favorites here is "Crazy Ex-Boyfriend," a tune about an obsessed former lover. "The next time she saw him, he called her a slut/So I rolled up my sleeves and kicked his butt."

But the CD's best song won't be well received by the politically correct. "Rural Point of View" is a defense of big old pickup trucks over little electric cars and a screed against Ivy League professors and organic-food snobs. "That pompous little fool can ride his bike to school 'cause a farmer with a truck is how he eats."

And yes, that "Death Metal Guys" song. Wanna know the real difference between rockabilly cats and death-metal dudes? Jerry Lee Lewis shot his bass player. But a death-metal guy, according to The Rev. Heat, would have "eaten his brain."

This album isn't very deep. But deep's overrated. Laughin' & Cryin' is lots of fun.

Also recommended

* The Fine of Oddities and Rarities 2003-2008 by Drive-By Truckers. Like the title explains, this is an odds 'n' sods collection of outtakes, alternate takes, cover songs, and other previously unreleased tracks by these wild-eyed Southern boys. To be honest, I find this album fresher than the Truckers' past couple of studio albums.

The album kicks off with an irreverent ode to a honky-tonk hero. "George Jones Talkin' Cell Phone Blues" deals with the Possum's 1999 car wreck. (He was driving drunk and yakking with his daughter on a cell phone when he drove off a bridge.)

The Truckers' song, written and sung by Patterson Hood, is an upbeat country rocker with John Neff's sweet steel guitar. It's got some wickedly funny lines Jones fans will recognize. ("I heard it on the news, you almost stopped loving her today/Better stay on that riding lawnmower if you're gonna keep on carrying on that way.") The love for Jones and his music is obvious in every lick.

But the strongest song here is Hood's weird slow burner called "The Great Car Dealer War." Apparently an outtake from The Dirty South (still my favorite DBT album), this is the story of a guy paid to torch vehicles at a car lot. The best lyrics: "I don't ask questions, I don't assume/I just take a long hard look when I walk into a room."

There are two opposing views about the Tennessee Valley Authority on the CD. One features on a rerecording of Trucker Mike Cooley's "Uncle Frank," a song that first appeared on the DBT's second album, Pizza Deliverance. In it, Frank kills himself after being ripped off by the government. On the other hand, there's former Trucker Jason Isbell's "TVA," which sounds like a Steve Earle song. He credits the TVA for bringing jobs and electricity to the South, as well as for his first teenage sexual conquest.

For pure twistedness, there's a funny Christmas song called "Mrs. Claus' Kimono" Full of adultery, class warfare, and an undercurrent of violence, it almost sounds like a parody of the Drive-By Truckers. And there's a story about a reindeer that Burl Ives never sang about.

The cover songs, for the most part, are inspired. Various Truckers trade off verses of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." There's a snarling version of Warren Zevon's "Play It All Night Long." ("Sweet home Alabama, play that dead band's song.") And best of all is a heartfelt version of Tom T. Hall's "Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken)." This is the story of a soldier coming home from war after having a leg blown off. He tries to keep his humor, but he's also got a bottle under his blanket.

The only misstep is a cover of Tom Petty's "Rebels." The DBTs do it like a Springsteen anthem. It sounds tacky in the company of "The Great Car Dealer War" and "Mama Bake a Pie."

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