The temptation is to throw your hands in the air and cry that Rick Rubin has done it again. But while the famed producer has indeed helmed another solid-to-strong return by an out-of-fashion act with ZZ Top’s La Futura, it’s not quite that simple. Beyond quibbles over just how outré a four-decade-old blues band from Texas will ever be, there’s some question about what Rubin added—or didn’t add, actually. It may just be that, after producing all their albums, Billy Gibbons needed a nudge from someone he trusted.
However the credit should be apportioned, the Houston trio sounds refreshed; after all, their ’80s drum machine look was wearing like faux wood basement paneling, unchanged a quarter-century later. There was no choice but to tear that shit out and return to the ’70s boogie of “Just Got Paid” and “La Grange.”
ZZ Top’s gritty, dusty and bedraggled prairie blues sounds as good as ever here. You do wonder how much Rubin talked to them about songs, though. The record feels a tad formless. Part of that might be sequencing, as the album doesn’t generate the kind of momentum it could or should; individually, the songs tend to flatten out and wander off anticlimactically. Most of them could end about 30 seconds earlier. All these symptoms create a problem over the course of an entire LP. Rubin should’ve taken a stronger hand.
Instead of lamenting how it might’ve been better, we can rhapsodize how nice it is to hear Billy, Dusty and Frank do what they do so well with more sympathetic production. Rubin wrings a lot from Gibbons withered growl. The 62-year old guitarist also steps up with some pretty well-written songs, from the locked groove of “Consumption” o the harrowing ode to addiction “It’s Too Easy Mañana,” with its dark expressionistic guitar break.
Rubin’s biggest contribution is at least an interesting one: Opener “I Gotsta Get Paid” is one of the producer’s famed genre cross-pollinations, as it covers the track “25 Lighters” by Houston’s DJ DMD. Gibbons does his best, but he can’t pull off the gangsta swag. He sounds like Andy Rooney ranting about his dresser-top BIC collection. The song’s accompanied by electronic tomfoolery that succeeds more in attracting attention than serving the song. Without all the dressing oe Gibbons’ whack “rap”, it would be quite a jam thanks to an absolutely sweltering lead over nice Delta drone.
In truth, this mix of tracks feels, for better and worse, like a retrospective. You have the “Tube Snake Boogie” of “Chartreuse” and “Flyin’ High,” whose clean, high and tight production is an obvious nod to Eliminator-era arena rock. There’s even a lovelorn blues waltz, “Over You,” where Gibbons’ vocal limp adds character to his aching desire to “get up and get over you.”
In turn, it’s a very good album with a few glaring flaws. Rubin definitely captured top-shelf performances, and on La Futura, Gibbons has written some of his best songs in years. Failure, at least, avoided.
ZZ Top plays Durham Performing Arts Center tonight, Wednesday, Sept. 10, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $50—$120.