They initially might seem to have sprouted from different family trees, but there is an unmistakable cultural linkage bonding Patterson Hood and ZZ Top on their new albums. Their songs cut deep into the restless, rural South, converging into sounds fresh and familiar.
Hood's Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance is set in Northern Alabama, an area slightly removed from the Muscle Shoals region Hood usually works out of as co-founder of Drive-By Truckers. But on this stark, narrative-heavy record, Hood tones down the DBT guitar attack to balance brittle songs of family with the usual lot of dark Southern parables.
The title tune sets the pace with a string-accented eulogy for a passing family elder and a cherished homestead in steady decay. "But the ghosts are a comfort to me," Hood sings wistfully while seeking solace.
Other departures include (untold pretties), a spoken word montage in which gray days and family funerals color another postscript to the past, and Come Back Little Star, a piano-led, Jayhawks-like duet with Kelly Hogan that internalizes the funeral feel somewhat.
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And for those missing that truly dark Truckers mood, there is 12:01, a novel view of Southern socializing set during the few wee hours where liquor sales are permitted. Like several of the songs on Heat Lightning, the characters portrayed live off the main roads and, more often than not, out of broad daylight.
ZZ Top's La Futura takes us deep into the nowhere of Texas, striding bordertown kitsch, ragged boogie and a sense of the blues that is regal but ghostly. It's no wonder that Billy Gibson sounds like the bogeyman incarnate as he croaks out the first verse of the album-opening I Gotsta Get Paid over a guitar groove that sounds as if it's has been slow-baked in the desert sun.
The band's first album in nine years, La Futura is also the trio's first collaboration with producer Rick Rubin. But those details add up to nothing in determining the parched and rocking roads the album travels. Unlike other late career comebacks overseen by Rubin, there is no revisionism at work here. In fact, La Futura is really an assemblage of parts Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard have pulled from their collective past.
Chartreuse and Consumption recall the boogie charge of Tush, while Big Shiny Nine so vividly conjures the hook-heavy Gimme All Your Lovin' (minus the synths) that you would swear that old Eliminator from the MTV videos of yore was tearing down the two-lane in our direction. That's the ZZ Top vision in a nutshell, a portrait of the future rooted forever in the past.