Sometimes ZZ Top can be its own evil twin. On the positive side, judging from Antenna (RCA), here is a band not at all interested in unplugging or acting grown-up, like so many of its stadium-veteran peers. Instead, the Texas trio—guitarist Billy Gibbons, bass player Dusty Hill, and drummer Frank Beard—continues to make pedal-to-the-metal music for cruising interstates with the top down and leering at—as one song puts it—that ”Girl in a T-Shirt” with her (wink wink, nudge nudge) ”Fuzzbox Voodoo.”
All well and good, but few if any bands of its generation have been as cynical as that other ZZ Top. After all, this is a group of ’70s boogie cowboys who revived themselves in the electronic ’80s with smirky, babe-heavy videos. A group that actually displays a registered trademark next to its name and uses in its CD booklets to flog its catalog. And a group that, on its 1990-91 Recycler tour, gave arena shows so calculated even a jaded rock lizard like Mick Jagger might have gagged. Whether the trio was resorting to the same cornball moves in its videos (mugging behind those squirrel-like beards, twirling white fur-covered guitars) or using prerecorded synthesizer tracks to bolster its sound, the shows effectively reduced both performer and audience alike to trained seals.
Since that last tour and album, ZZ Top has left its record company, Warner Bros., for a $30 million contract with RCA. Deals of that caliber are meant as both artistic and financial validations; in Top’s case, it was clearly meant to elevate the group to the status of other megacontract rock acts like U2 and Aerosmith. (It was also intended to shore up RCA’s roster, which is lacking in superstars.) ZZ Top’s records, though, have never approached the inspired levels of those bands’, and Antenna, their first album as big-money superstars, only confirms that lingering suspicion.
Ever since Eliminator, the 1983 album that recast ZZ Top as MTV-friendly cartoons, the trio’s music has tried, sometimes ambitiously, to meld the hoariest, most time-honored blues licks with a heavily computerized, almost industrial-rock clatter. (It’s not such a big leap from mid-’80s ZZ Top hits like ”Sleeping Bag” to the junk-heap spew of Nine Inch Nails.) At best, the thrill came in the sound of an inherently conservative white boy blues band reinventing itself for a new decade.
That sound grew increasingly formualic with each subsequent album, and this latest effort finds the band’s techno-biker mode at the end of a one-way street. Now that guitar bands are back in vogue, the trio has, with typical cynicism, stripped away the excessive computerized sonics of its previous few albums. Starting with its title, Antenna is meant as some kind of homage to the Southwestern border radio sound of the ’50s and ’60s and to the greasy-spoon boogie of the band’s early days.
Nice idea, but the damage has been done: The record doesn’t sound so much played as digitally encoded, and the songs mostly recycle old familiar steamroller riffs. Even during those moments when the music actually seems to be performed by live humans—Gibbons’ guitar freakout at the end of ”Pincushion” or the unexpectedly languorous ballad ”Breakaway”—Beard’s clunky, machinelike drumming drags everything down. The less said about the gruffly nondescript singing, the better.
What’s ironic about this situation is that the ZZ Top crew themselves aren’t wind-up dolls. Within them, the drooling spirit of mountain-man rock & roll still lurks. Every so often, Gibbons will unleash a boisterous, squawking guitar line, and upholding a noble blues tradition, they know a good, dumb double entendre when they write one—”Cover Your Rig” would make a funny public-service ad for condoms. Too bad the rest of Antenna isn’t as proudly bent as moments like that. C