Concord [Release date 04.06.21]
Billy F Gibbons new album ‘Hardware’ is a return to his rock-a-boogie template, but with a contemplative feel born of the band’s isolated recording environment in the Mojave desert.
There’s always something consistently familiar about Billy F Gibbons. It isn’t just his cartoon character appearance, the Texas drawl, or indeed his significant crunchy guitar tones. It has more to do with the fact that as a songwriter you can always rely on him to incorporate something different into a familiar context, be it humour in a rock setting, or dabbling in faux Spanish on a Tex Mex cover.
And so it is with his third solo album ‘Hardware’ – the title of which comes from the nickname given to ZZ Tops late engineer Joe Hardy – which conceptually connects Gibbons with own sense of durability.
‘Hardware’ started out as a project in search of a context. With the exception of an Augie Meyers cover, this is his first all self penned solo album.
Like many musicians before them, the two guitar and drums trio of Gibbons, Austin Hanks and Matt Sorum found their creative spirit in the Joshua Tree desert location.
Gibbons channels the unique energy of the place into a Zen like approach to creating something out of nothing on a return to his rocking roots, but with a twist.
The latter isn’t fully revealed until the single ‘West Coast Junkie’ where his essential Texas persona embraces the surf imagery that the West Coast offers him. The fact that his sojourn takes him miles away from the nearest drop of water adds to the surreal feel of both the song and the album as a whole.
Then there’s ‘Spanish Fly’ which is an exercise in minimalism, born of the band’s immersion in their immediate environment: “You gotta get down if you wanna get high.”
It’s a brooding piece punctuated by guitar squalls and a chanted hook, with everything being offset by some ethereal Theremin style sounds and Billy’s own exhortations to break out of a self evident claustrophobic feel.
The fact that he does so with the classic line: “I’m a West Coast Junkie from a Texas Town’ over the retro sounding surf beat of ‘West Coast Junkie’, says much for his imagination and ever present humour.
But let’s return to the notion of durability. This album strips everything back to the bone with a timeless combination of his vocal growl and evocative guitar tones.
So while the desert might act as a catalyst for everything from an energetic vibe to lyrical imagery, it’s his role as a musical conduit that lights the touch paper. He’s got the vision and is a constant (make that durable) presence who steers the ship to its destination while having fun along the way.
The urgent ZZ Top style boogie of ‘She’s On Fire’ for example, is about a Mexican restaurant the band frequented. Gibbons uses the fact it caught fire as a catalyst for a song with flowing groove, insistent bv’s and a gnawing edgy guitar tone.
It’s the way he digs deep into his own musical DNA to come up with something both exploratory and also familiar that makes this album interesting.
From the opening husky vocal on the hard driving ‘My Lucky Card’, full of sharp, parched guitar tones seemingly plucked from the desert surroundings, we’re drawn into a cinematic journey with a dirt in the groove rock sensibility.
‘More More More’ is a bone crunching rocker with a booming hook and uplifting bv’s with lashings of slide that leaps out like a rattlesnake, while ‘Shuffle Step & Slide’ is closer to his blues roots.
It’s notable for the contrast between the booming rhythm guitars and sinewy lead lines, all neatly glued together by his characteristic vocal husk.
It all brings us to the point in the album where the high energy rocking gives way to ‘Vagabond’, a nuanced ballad with another gloriously weathered vocal.
‘Hardware’ sounds like it might be the final piece in a solo triumvirate, as there’s talk of a new ZZ Top album. If that’s the case, it provides the final coherent piece of Gibbons musical solo sidestep.
It has seen him explore Latino tinged r&b and soul filtered through modern technology, before returning to the blues and rounding the final corner to rock again.
‘Hardware’ finds an equilibrium between what Gibbons does so well, and the fact he’s nudged out of his comfort zone with little things like the shared bass playing responsibilities. As a result nothing sounds too predictable, while his willingness to venture into different styles on self-penned material keeps things fresh.
‘Stacking Bones’ for example, is trademark Gibbons with its core vocal husk and relentless guitar tones offset by unexpected girly bv’s. The fact that it is thoughtfully sequenced means it sounds refreshing and vital.
In truth it’s everything that ‘I Was A Highway’ isn’t. The latter sounds like ZZ Top outtake, while there’s more of the Top style rumble on the tub-thumping ‘S-G-L-M-B-B-R’ complete with the mirthful explanatory line: “I am what I am, it is what is”.
By the time of the Augie Meyers cover ‘Hey Baby, Que Paso’, you get the feeling that the album is wilting slightly and in search of something different.
The combination of a sudden harp flurry and ‘Spanglish’ does indeed make it different, but it’s more of a curiosity than essential.
Happily everything is impressively rounded off by impressionistic ‘Desert High’. The spoken word narrative provides an atmospheric summation of the ghosts of Joshua Tree’s musical past.
It’s all filtered through a cool arrangement full of evocative tones that dance round Gibbon’s wood burned raspy timbre and drifts into the ether far too soon.
‘Hardware’ isn’t a definitive statement of Gibbons oeuvre, but it’s close enough for the blues. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
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