Album reviews: Leon Bridges and ZZ Top
New album: Good Thing
Artist: Leon Bridges
Second albums can be difficult, but Leon Bridges' Good Thing dispels the sophomore curse and improves on its formidable predecessor.
There's no denying Bridges' debut album Coming Home was a modern take on Sam Cooke, but Bridges offered more than a Xerox of a legend's ghost. The approach on that first album may have been retro, but there was enough of Bridges own DNA in the songs and performances to stake his own claim. On Good Thing, Bridges eases away from 1960s vibe and concocts a 21st-century version on the Philadelphia soul of Gamble and Huff.
Album opener "Bet Ain't Worth The Hand" wouldn't sound totally out of place on a Stylistics greatest hits album, with Bridges' earnest croon sailing over a string-laden ballad custom made for slow dancing. This track will trip a memory breaker to listeners who grew up with 'that sound', while simultaneously introducing a generation of listeners weened on auto-tuned/computer-rendered r&b to something genuine.
Elsewhere, Good Thing is painted with a more modern brush. On "Bad Bad News" Bridges is firmly in 2018 sonic territory, delivering a sublime vocal and lyrics that dare to be intelligent. Who knew it was still possible to make a commercial pop tune that's also a great song?
On "Beyond", Bridges turns the worn out boy-seeks-girl scenario on its head by wondering about things that matter instead of the usual empty calories of Saturday night tunnel vision. For "You Don't Know", Bridges touches on the sunny dancefloor pop of Off The Wall-era Michael Jackson, and the album closes with the autobiographical "Georgia To Texas", featuring jazz overtones that never veer totally off of the soul path.
Some fans may lament Bridges' departure from the retro feel of his debut, but this new work is worthy of a listen. Curious ears in search of quality will be rewarded here.
Classic album: Fandango
Artist: ZZ Top
Label: London/Warner Bros.
Many to most know ZZ Top as the bearded heroes of a series of 1980s videos crammed full of cars, furry spinning guitars and the occasional model. The album that spawned most of those videos ("Sharp Dressed Man", "Legs", "Gimmie All Your Lovin", etc.) was Eliminator, which introduced that Little Ol' Band from Texas to synthesizers and a whole bunch of money.
Fourteen years or so before Eliminator hit the shelves, ZZ Top was a fierce blues-rock band just starting to crawl out of Texas. Their early sound was gritty with a capital GRR, but the songs were still catchy, humorous and quirky. Since there were no synthesizers to lock in with, drummer Frank Beard brought a sense of swing and swagger to the proceedings that were a perfect foil for guitarist Billy Gibbon's mammoth riffs.
The Top's fourth album Fandango! featured one side of live recordings and a second side of studio tracks. There are several classics on the studio side ("Heard It On The X", "Blue Jean Blues", "Tush") that exemplify the best of what ZZ Top could achieve in the studio. It's been scientifically proven that no human can listen to "Heard It On The X" without drumming on the steering wheel and/or playing air guitar.
As good as the studio tracks are, the live half of the album is the revelation here. Starting off with a cover of The Nightcaps song "Thunderbird", ZZ Top zooms in like a tank attached to a team of fighter jets. The boogie packs a wallop from the first beat, with even a rendering of "Jailhouse Rock" sounding more like Black Sabbath than Elvis Presley.
The crown jewel of this collection is the 10-minute medley of "Back Door Love Affair/Mellow Down Easy", which features ZZ Top in jamming mode. There's always structure and adherence to melody, but the guys stretch out and show improvisational chops only hinted at on their more radio-friendly fare. The crowd is so raucous it sounds as if the venue could implode at any second.
ZZ Top paid their dues, and no one should besmirch them for making commercial albums in the 1980s. However, anyone who'd like to hear this band at the height of their powers should pick up a copy of Fandango! or any of their early 1970s work immediately.