THE COMPLETE STUDIO ALBUMS 1970-1990
ZZ Top (Warner)
ZZ Top occupies a paradoxical place in American rock history.
On the one hand they're perhaps the most underrated blues rock power trio ever thanks to the gritty raunch of their first six releases stretching from "ZZ Top's First Album" to "Deguello." On the other, the Texas band achieved such mass popularity by the mid-’80s with a notably different — and gimmicky — sound that they became overexposed and tiresome.
This box set of 10 albums perfectly captures this dichotomy if you take the time to listen to the albums in chronological order. "Rio Grande Mud" (1972) and "Tres Hombres" (1973) are remarkable snapshots of a band that had captured the sweat and sex of the blues and then amped it up with a Texas spin.
Underappreciated songs such as "Whiskey'n Mama," "Just Got Paid," "Master of Sparks," and the great ballad "Sure Got Cold After the Rain Fell" don't get played on classic rock radio, and rediscovering them in these remastered editions is a revelation. Billy Gibbons' guitar work was always inventive and cutting, with rhythm section Frank Beard and Dusty Hill able to power drive, swing or lay back, depending on what the song called for.
Things changed with "El Loco" (1981) and "Eliminator" (1983) with the introduction of synthesizers, drum machines, and a goofy over reliance on double entendre and pop-based songwriting. It's as if the band and longtime producer Bill Ham spent so much time and effort refining their sound that they went too far, presenting what was once rough and tumble rock and roll as buffed and shiny pop rock.
The last album in this set, "Recycler," (1990) is almost sad. With the exception of "My Head's in Mississippi" the songs are generic and rote, with rhythms that sound mechanical and production designed to meet industry expectations instead of serve the music. It is almost unlistenable, especially in the context of the band's robust mid-’70s work.
"Recycler" was a harbinger of lean times for ZZ Top as the band fell into a rut that was finally broken with last year's excellent "La Futura," which updated that classic boogie-blues approach without pandering to trends. Lesson learned, apparently.
— ROD LOCKWOOD
AFTER EARTH (Soundtrack)
James Newton Howard (Sony Music)
Eight-time Oscar nominee James Newton Howard, who has scored soundtracks for more than 100 films and rightfully taken a place among Hollywood's elite composers, is on the mark with the arrangement he scored for this sci-fi thriller starring Will Smith.
The film's plot centers around a father-son story about coping on Earth 1,000 years after cataclysmic events forced humanity's escape. The soundtrack is part lush musical orchestration and part primal sound, with gorgeous strings offering a comfortable auditory landscape one minute and rolling timpani pumping up the adrenalin the next.
It's a fine classical music experience from a talented composer who has evoked emotions through music in the past through such hits as Pretty Woman, The Prince of Tides, The Dark Knight, The Village, King Kong, Batman Begins, I Am Legend, Green Lantern, and The Bourne Legacy.
— TOM HENRY
INSPIRATION: A TRIBUTE TO NAT KING COLE
George Benson (Concord)
Just how much Nat King Cole inspired George Benson is evident on the opening track of “Inspiration: A Tribute To Nat King Cole” — a 1951 recording of an 8-year-old Benson singing “Mona Lisa,” accompanying himself on ukulele.
Like Cole, Benson first established himself as a highly regarded jazz instrumentalist before enjoying crossover pop stardom once he began singing.
Benson shows off his jazz vocal chops with some scat singing on a fast-paced, brassy big band version of “Just One Of Those Things” and a Latin-flavored arrangement of “Unforgettable,” with Wynton Marsalis contributing a smooth trumpet solo.
He harmonizes beautifully with Broadway leading lady Idina Menzel on “When I Fall In Love” and rising star Judith Hill, recently eliminated from “The Voice,” on “Too Young.” Other highlights include a bluesy “Route 66” and a retro-style “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” with a hard-driving guitar solo — both done in a small combo setting.
But Benson misses an opportunity to put his distinctive stamp on the Cole repertoire by letting his guitar take a backseat to his voice. The result is that some tracks such as “Nature Boy” and Mona Lisa,” which also use Nelson Riddle’s arrangements for Cole’s recordings, can sound derivative rather than fresh.
— CHARLES GANS,