Not that it necessarily means much, but Dallas rockabilly wildman Jim Heath (Horton Heat to record buyers, the Rev to his fans) sports a shit-eating grin and a hideous striped jacket on the first album, clenched eyes and a white clerical robe on the second, a screaming mouth and an AC/DC T-shirt on the third. More to the point, while his trio’s debut was produced by nobody, Gibby Haynes and Al Jourgensen, respectively, manned the studio helm on the next two.
By modern standards, Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em is fresh but mild; although Heat sings “I’m Mad” and promises a “Psychobilly Freakout,” the skilled guitar picker and his trusty rhythm section (slap bassist Jimbo Wallace and drummer Patrick “Taz” Bentley) never really cut loose. Despite the album’s vintage atmospherics, songs like “Marijuana” and “Eat Steak” make it clear they’re not reverent revivalists, either. By this evidence, Jerry Lee could pin these wusses to a wall with one hand in his pants.
Fortunately, that was just the opening gambit in Heat’s musical negotiations with the devil. Egged on by the twisted genius of their personal Butthole Surfer savior and pushing songs with real moxie, shape and wit, the boys sound truly possessed (at least by the spirit of Mojo Nixon) on The Full-Custom Gospel Sounds. This downright fine drunken blast is played with gear-stripping power and captured with loads of audio hot sauce. From the salacious raunch of “Wiggle Stick” through “Livin’ on the Edge (of Houston),” played at lickety-split velocity, to the thoroughly dissolute funhouse mirror collapse of “Gin and Tonic Blues,” which wraps things up (Heath has admitted to actually passing out during the song’s recording), the album is an all-out ride toward twisted neo-‘billy righteousness.
Hitching up to the major-label feeding trough and throwing in with the Ministry maestro, Team Heat loses its stylistic head on Liquor in the Front. The band’s twangy hysterics still set the basic course, but the songwriting is corny and conservative, and Jourgensen has the temerity to play industrial dress-up in a few spots: a relentless downbeat on “Baddest of the Bad,” the clattery synth drums on “Yeah, Right” and the strident, tinny tone (especially on “I Can’t Surf”) all draw connections to a genre for which the band has no rational use. Heat attempts a Jerry Lee imitation on the uncluttered “I Could Get Used to It,” “Rockin’ Dog” hits a jivey Stray Cats groove and “Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’ ” is top-notch chrome ‘billy business, but nothing here is as wickedly unkempt as The Full-Custom Gospel Sounds. And it hardly helps that this weak album ends on a lame joke: Taz’s ridiculously sloppy rendition (on piano, no less, accompanied by barnyard noises and belches) of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.”
Taking guitar tech Kirk St. James along with him, Bentley bolted the Reverend’s entourage in ’94 to join Tenderloin, a Kansas-to-Dallas quartet that had toured as their opening act that year. St. James and Bentley (who also co-produced) both appear on the band’s Bullseye LP, putting a hair more gleeful maniac jizz into the jagged-up but futile blues-rock boogie bluster of Let It Leak. Covers of Dr. Feelgood (“Milk & Alcohol”) and ZZ Top (“Heard It on the X”) give ‘Loin leader Ernie Locke stuff to sing, but then so do band originals like the moody “Inseminator” and the hellbent “Dip Your Body in Ink.”
In 1996, Heat — joined by Wallace and new drummer Scott Churilla — moved up the imbibery food chain and declared It’s Martini Time. It’s an eclectic and sophisticated album that ended the procession of wackball producers by putting Thom Panuzio (who has worked with Alice Cooper, Tom Jones and Joan Jett) at the studio controls. Adopting a suave entertainer pose for some tunes and a more familiar rockin’ daddy stance for the rest, Heat whips around his colorful dirt track with the focus, drive and efficiency of a champion racer.
By contrast, Space Heater doesn’t fire on all cylinders. The most satisfying songs (“Starlight Lounge,” “Revolution Under Foot,” “Hello Mrs. Darkness”) find the trio easing back on the accelerator, revisiting some of the last album’s lounge territory. (Instrumentals like “Pride of San Jacinto” and “The Prophet Stomp” showcase the Rev’s guitar-picking prowess.) Acceleration, however, leads nowhere: Heat sings about “Goin’ Manic” rather than actually getting there. A tribute to Heat’s bassist, “Jimbo Song,” is the first taste of a theme to which the group would return more often than necessary. Producer Ed Stasium (Ramones, Living Colour, Smithereens) imparts an unpleasant metallic quality to the rhythm guitar on too many tracks, as if he were trying to mainstream the band. (Knowing Interscope, it’s a fair bet he was.)
Holy Roller offers a generous selection of tracks from the group’s first five albums. It includes a new Heat original, “Bath-water Blues,” and a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” The 20th Century Masters CD excerpts 15 tracks from the three Interscope releases; about half its tracks overlap the earlier compilation.
Leaving Interscope and returning to producer Paul Leary, the band came up with a solid winner on Spend a Night in the Box. The Rev relocated his songwriting mojo for an album full of tasty rockabilly, swinging grooves and good old-fashioned stomp. The title track gets things off to a terrific start, as Heat compares himself to Cool Hand Luke (and his oppressive girlfriend to the Strother Martin character of that film). “The Party in Your Head,” which ends the album, reprises that paranoid viewpoint, driving it home with cavernous echo on the guitar. In between, tracks like “Big D Boogie Woogie,” “The Girl in Blue,” “It Hurts Your Daddy Bad,” “Unlucky in Love” and “The Millionaire” show the trio in top form as they negotiate some of their trickiest rhythms. “Sue Jack Daniels” is a hilarious high-speed lament of drunken mishaps and the distiller who’s to blame for them. “Sleeper Coach Driver” is a rollicking honky-tonk story told by a chauffeur to the stars. This is one of the band’s best albums, with not a weak track in the box.
After that, the band gave Stasium another shot behind the boards on Lucky 7. Without a major label to appease, Stasium avoided the over-amped excesses that marred Space Heater and, for the most part, the trio hews to its high-octane approach, slowing the proceedings down in the middle for the countryish “The Tiny Voice of Reason” and the spaghetti Western instrumental “Duel at the Two O’Clock Bell.” The CD concludes with not one but two jokey tributes to Wallace: “Sermon on the Jimbo” and “You’ve Got a Friend in Jimbo.” Lucky 7 is a bit short on variety, but fans of frenzied rockabilly will find plenty to enjoy.
Heat and Stasium stuck to that template for Revival. This time around, the slower numbers (“Someone in Heaven,” “We Belong Forever”) actually sound more for the band’s benefit than the listener’s, as if the musicians needed to pause for a breather after a series of high-speed onslaughts. On the closing “Goin’ Back Home,” Heat boasts that “There’s about a billion bars, and a new one every day / There’s millions of notes that I can play.” Maybe so, but that abundance doesn’t translate to much variety here.
With substantial help from Asleep at the Wheel keyboardist Tim Alexander (who’s provided musical support to Heat as far back as the first album), the trio brings the Christmas spirit to its rollicking sound (or perhaps the other way around) on We Three Kings. The instrumental approach is more surf-influenced than rockabilly-flavored; the treatments of “Jingle Bells,” “What Child Is This” and the title track will feel familiar to fans of the Ventures (or Los Straitjackets). Elsewhere, the group gets closer to its usual groove on “Frosty the Snowman,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Run Rudolph Run.” They also toss in a few less traditional Yuletide numbers, like Buck Owens’ “Santa Looked a Lot like Daddy” and Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper,” along with a serviceable original, “Santa on the Roof.” Nothing here qualifies as a “psychobilly freakout,” but who’d expect that from an album of Christmas music? We Three Kings is a fun, lively addition to anyone’s holiday set list.
For a busman’s holiday, Heat formed the ad hoc group Reverend Organdrum with Alexander and Todd Soesbe (a jazz drummer who happens to be Alexander’s next-door neighbor). On Hi-Fi Stereo, the trio applies its skills to a set of instrumental classics by such composers as Henry Mancini, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Duane Eddy, Nelson Riddle, Lee Hazlewood and Booker T. & the MG’s. (Heat lays vocals on Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” and Sammy Mysels’ “Bim Bam Baby.”) Alexander’s tasty Hammond B-3 playing inspires Heat to deliver some jazzier guitar licks than most of his fans would expect. Hi-Fi Stereo is a satisfying effort by this offshoot, and hopefully won’t be its last. That said, the appearance of two albums of covers in a row does raise the question of how badly the good Reverend’s songwriting skills might be in need of revival.Have no fear, brothers and sisters. The Rev is back at the top of his songwriting game on Laughin’ & Cryin’. With drummer Paul Simmons replacing Scott Churilla, the trio takes a more relaxed approach than it did on the last two original albums, blending more Texas swing and two-step into its rockabilly. In the accordion-enhanced “Ain’t No Saguaro in Texas,” Heat sets the record straight about the tall cactus’s connection in the public mind with his home state. (Including a cover of Ernest Tubb’s “There’s a Little Bit of Everything in Texas” on the same disc must’ve been an oversight.) In “Death Metal Guys,” the Rev likewise bemoans his scene’s unwelcome association with the pentagram set: “Jerry Lee Lewis shot his bass player down / Down to the ground with a .38 round / But death metal guys would’ve eaten his brains / And people call Jerry Lee Lewis insane.” The protagonist of the saloon lament “Aw, the Humanity” likens a humiliating public breakup to the Hindenburg disaster. Co-producing with Tim Alexander, the three caballeros focus more on tight ensemble playing than flash or freakouts, letting the songs shine through. As the album goes on, this approach starts to work against them: comedy numbers (but aren’t they all?) like “Beer Holder,” and “Just Let Me Hold My Paycheck” could use a bit more juice. Even on an instrumental (the Hawaiian-flavored “Spacewalk”), the guitarist keeps his solos more laid-back. Still, Laughin’ & Cryin’ is an entertaining return to form. And kudos to the band for resisting the urge to play the Tin Pan Alley nugget “Oh by Jingo!” as “Oh by Jimbo.”