Tuesday, November 17, 2009

November 17: The Reverend Horton Heat, "Smoke "Em If You Got 'Em"

Artist: The Reverend Horton Heat
Album: Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em
Year: 1991
Label: Sub Pop

When it comes to the smaller record labels, many of them understandably specialize in a particular geographic area or genre. This is usually a good thing, as "label identification" is one of the greatest aspects of small labels. However, in the case of what may very well be the most popular small label of all time, one of their most successful groups sounded like nothing else on the label. Though Sub Pop records are without question best known for the label that brought the world Nirvana and were, for some time, the "it" indie label, there were a handful of non-grunge bands on their roster, and these other bands support the idea that grunge was simply another take on punk rock. If one takes this "grunge is punk" idea as true (it is), and one understands that grunge was simply a louder, slightly wilder version of the "classic" sound of the genre, then one can similarly see the same stylistic morphing that turned rockabilly into the more modern, wonderfully named genre of "psychobilly." Within this smaller genre of music, there is one band that stands far above the rest in terms of both musical ability as well as the dedicated following that they have earned over the years. With his twisted sense of humor, amazing stage presence, and brilliant songs, there has simply never been another artist as highly regarded as the one and only Jim Heath and his band, The Reverend Horton Heat. Though their entire catalog is absolutely worth owning, the band was rarely as hot and musically stunning as they were on their 1991 debut album, Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em.

The genre of psychobilly represents the space where the music of The Blasters meets that of The Cramps, and while these two bands represent the beginnings of the sound, the music of The Reverend Horton Heat remains today as the finest band that the genre has ever produced. Every song within the bands' catalog is constantly teetering on the line between super-fast-paced rock and out of control musical chaos. Their ability to hold firm to this small space is a testament to their unparalleled musicianship as well as to their unrelenting quest for high-octane, unique rock and roll music. While the speed and energy run through each of their songs, it is taken to an entirely new level on one of the bands' most famous and beloved songs, the legendary "Psychobilly Freakout." The song itself was actually released nearly a year before the album, as part of Sub Pop's "Single Of The Month" club. The song itself is a wild, two-and-a-half minute blazing guitar barn burner and stands with the likes of Eddie Van Halen's work on "Eruption" as songs that leave even the finest guitarists in awe. In more modern times, the song has become a favorite in a number of video games, yet the version that appears in the hit Guitar Hero series is, in fact, an altered version of the original. While "The Reverend" himself takes center stage on each song, the other two-thirds of the band play just as brilliantly and the sound created by the trio is absolutely stunning.

Due to the sheer speed and extremely high technical aptitude necessary to play the style of psychobilly found on Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em, one cannot overstate the talent and stunning performance by all three band members. Though in an overwhelming majority of bands, the drumming is in many ways an afterthought, the playing of Patrick "Taz" Bentley found on this album instantly catapults his name to the top of the list of the finest drummers of his generation. Bentley keeps an absolutely insane pace throughout every song, and his ability to fuse the speed of punk with a distinct musicality that is derived from the western sound is truly unparalleled. The "other Jim" of The Reverend Horton Heat comes in the form of bass-master, Jimbo Wallace. Also keeping the blinding speed going strong, the tone which comes from his upright bass presents an absolutely fantastic contrast to the wild mood of the overall song. Rounding out the band is The Reverend himself on guitar, and it is his work that is perhaps the most impressive of every aspect of the band. Taking as much from heavier bands like AC/DC as he does from contemporaries like Junior Brown, there has simply never been another guitarist quite like Jim Heath. Blending together the sounds of big band, blues, and rock and roll, there are few guitarists who have shown the pure skill that is found on every song The Reverend Horton Heat has ever released. Though "Psychobilly Freakout" is very much Jim Heath's most impressive moment, the consistency with which he delivers every song makes him easily one of the most talented musicians of his generation. Though many groups have attempted to replicate the sound of The Reverend Horton Heat, due to the pure talent of the trio, no other band even comes close.

Along with his unparalleled guitar playing skills, Jim Heath also remains one of the most distinctive and impressive vocalists of his generation. Again finding the ideal balance between the rockabilly sound and more aggressive vocals, Heath's singing is often reminiscent of the sounds of the "golden age" of rock and roll. Whether it is a slower, more ballad-eqsue song like "It's A Dark Day" or an outright rock and roll explosion like "I'm Mad," Heath's vocals are uniquely perfect for on every track. Going along with the overall mood of a band that is riding the edge of musical chaos, the lyrics to the songs of The Reverend Horton Heat are almost always celebrations of women, partying, and many of lifes' vices. Whether it is the straightforward "Marijuana" or the amusing ode to food, "Eat Steak," every song on Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em is a fantastic thrill-ride of music and singing. Then of course, there are the not-so-subtle celebrations of the most carnal of desires, as the band presents the truly brilliant "I'm Mad" as well as the tantalizing, risqué "Love Whip" which present both ends of the "love" spectrum. The vocal performance of Heath is truly perfect on every single song, and the wide ranging, yet consistently energetic lyrical themes help to make the songs of The Reverend Horton Heat some of the most purely enjoyable ever written.

Perhaps the most clear example of why The Reverend Horton Heat stand so far above their peers can be summed up in the fact that Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em was completely re-recorded on a simple two-track after the first recordings were deemed far "too technical and clean." The fact that both the band and their label understood that the music required a certain feel of grit and grime to perfect its authenticity serves as a testament to the amazing foresight of all involved. Yet even with the stripped down recording, the band remains absolutely on fire and the songs are each absolutely magnificent in every way. Whether it is the unrelenting, turbo-charged performance of the rhythm section or the winding, breakneck playing of Jim Heath on guitar, the band uses every song to prove that they are some of the most talented musicians to ever record. The classic "Psychobilly Freakout" remains one of the most truly stunning songs ever recorded, and the wild, yet classic sound of the song perfectly sums up everything that makes The Reverend Horton Heat such a uniquely brilliant band. Presenting an amazing balance between rock and roll sleaze and a classiness that is reminiscent of the mid-1950's crooners, The Reverend Horton Heat perfectly executes every juxtaposition that makes them great. While their entire catalog is just as fantastic, The Reverend Horton Heat forever changed the face of music with their monumental 1991 debut, Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em.

Standout tracks: "Bad Reputation," "Psychobilly Freakout," and "Marijuana."

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