Out Here

Horton hears a why

Space Heater
Reverend Horton Heat
Interscope Records

Rockabilly died a quick death because it was born full-grown, and it had nowhere to go but six feet under. Those who outlived the music evolved beyond it, and those who didn't were carried out in the same coffin; so, as critic Peter Guralnick once wrote, rockabilly remained the most "pure" of all genres. Which, of course, never stopped Jim Heath, who was drawn to rockabilly not just for the music but also for the stuff that surrounded it--the poodle-skirted dames and the slicked-back boys, the late-night gins and early-morning Luckys, the whole package shrink-wrapped in '50s kitsch and '90s irony. Heath liked the music because it provided him with an instant image, something bigger than he would ever be alone. Rockabilly turned a man into a myth, a singer into a matinee idol, a guitar player into a guitar slinger, and it remade Jim Heath into Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis and Gene Vincent all at once.

Yet Heath always understood rockabilly's limitations as a genre; by his second record, the Gibby Haynes-produced sloppy masterpiece Full-Custom Gospel Sounds of..., he had moved well beyond the trademarked psychobilly freakouts toward a bigger, fuller rock and roll. Over time, he'd go lounge before it became trendy and include surf and technometal in the mix; he wanted to become Sinatra too, a retro crooner singing Latin ballads over moonlit midnight solos.

But since Haynes, Heath hasn't found a producer in tune with his talent and twists: For the Rev's fifth record, Space Heater, the band hired Ed Stasium, who turned Living Colour into Rush, and it only proves how hard it is to find good help. The result is the first Horton record made for the arena, an album that sounds bigger than its predecessors but offers a whole lot more of a whole lot less; it's as though the revved-up guitar and distorted vocals are meant to trick you into thinking there's still real meat on those bare bones. It doesn't quite work: Though the album opens with a blast (the muscle-flexing, spaghetti-western workout "Pride of San Jacinto") and hits the occasional target ("Texas Rock-A-Billy Rebel" is a nice piece of revisionism), it's a little bit like hearing someone tell a tired old joke in a slightly different accent. The delivery may change, but you know the punch line by heart.

Heath has begun to cloak everything he does in the same silly, gray shade of irony; Reverend Horton Heat--which also includes longtime bassist Jimbo Wallace and drummer Scott Churilla--has turned into the Cramps once and for all, losing itself to the gimmick (sci-fi, this time around) instead of to the music. There's no joy or humor to be found when Heath starts rapping--if that's indeed what it is, depending upon your charitable definition--during the flat-footed, funk-free "Revolution Under Foot." It's just one more forgettable moment on an album that sounds like a louder, duller version of a more exciting yesterday.

--Robert Wilonsky

 
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