Rock ‘n’ roll has always had fans choosing sides on particular debates, the most famous of which being, “Are you a Beatles or Rolling Stones guy?” (You can find this writer firmly in the Stones camp). You can absolutely enjoy both, but you strongly prefer one over the other. A similar chasm formed around 1990 in the nascent alt-rock world. Social Distortion and Reverend Horton Heat had some comparable traits – they were formed around the singular talent of one frontman/songwriter, they both embraced country and punk influences, and they both LOVED loud guitars. But while Social D had a definite SoCal feel, the Rev stuck more with their Texas and Southern roots. As a longtime Social Distortion (and Mike Ness) fan, while I enjoyed Reverend Horton Heat, I never gave them (and Jim Heath) a true chance to win me over. Their latest release, Whole New Life (Victory), may have done the trick.
The record is an old-school banger right out of the gate. The title track, like many of the songs, features fantastic guitar/piano interplay, and the lyrics espouse an optimism new to the band’s music: “I got store-bought clothes and my life is on its way.” Simple pleasures and modest goals abound across the record – “Got It In My Pocket” gives the feeling of a man happily carrying the whole world with him, including, “A heart-shaped box with a diamond ring.” Similarly, “Tchoupitoulas Street” has the singer jazzily bouncing along the New Orleans musical avenue with, “A smile on my face and music in my feet.”
Country influences show themselves, too. “Hate To See You Cry” drops the reverb for clearer, more plaintive vocals to match the sadder feel: “A shooting star in the blink of any eye/Life goes by, and I hate to see you cry.” And “Don’t Let Go Of Me” is downright spooky and foreboding, adding some goth to the band’s psychobilly: “I’ll set you free though it hurts/Hurts me to infinity.”
The optimistic tone of the album is clearest when Heath’s words urge us to look past life’s imperfections. “Sunrise Through The Power Lines”, with its driving guitar/drumbeat, pushes the listener to see the beauty beyond the manmade chaos. Straight-up rocker “Perfect” revels in the absence of that very adjective: “Perfection is not in the cards/Not by a mile or a couple of yards.” But when it comes to him and his girl? That’s right – it’s perfect. The album wraps with a cover of “Viva Las Vegas”. The interwebs are littered with clips of the band performing it live, but, oddly enough, they hadn’t recorded it. This manic, slightly off-kilter rendition lends the song new life. It’s definitely worth a listen.
In addition to Heath (vocals and guitar) and longtime bassist Jimbo Wallace, this incarnation of Reverend Horton Heat includes RJ Contreras on drums and Matt Jordan, whose work on piano absolutely sets this album apart. Am I still a loyal Social Distortion addict? Absolutely. But I now realize that I’ve been missing a little Heat in my life, and I can always make room for a new favorite. http://www.reverendhortonheat.com/