Reverend Horton Heat
Space Heater

What you need to know about Reverend Horton Heat is that in the early '90s he had enough indie cred to make loans to wannabe rockabillys. Now, he's the one who needs to borrow. The hard part of understanding how this happened is that eight years ago the Rev would've been the least likely narcoleptic from that era's indiecore. His first album, Sub Pop's 1990 Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em, documented this certifiable freak's fusion of punk and its antecedents — rockabilly and hard-swinging jazz — which he played faster than Cliff Gallup himself probably ever thought possible.

Not that others weren't fiddling with rockabilly. But for acts like the Cramps and Deadbolt, rockabilly was a joke, just one of many to be tossed off during their oh-so-scary shows. It was different for the Rev. Once you got past the surface greaser hick shtick — rolled-up 501's, white T-shirt, scuffed Docs — you had a butt-kicking musician who outrocked many of his contemporaries. Sure, he sang dopey songs through a tube mike about fast women, hard drinking, and Texan mythology. But the way he phrased those songs — via an ironic faux cowboy voice — gave them such understated twists that they became much deeper plays with the genre. The Rev often seemed silly, but he was really quite serious about rockabilly.

And the Rev was one of the best guitarists going. A true chops monster — on an incredibly difficult to play '53 Gretsch no less — he blended warp-speed rockabilly licks, punk vamps, and uptown chords. You could enjoy his shows just for the shred.

That Reverend Horton Heat is dead. Now, on Space Heater, he seems to be trying to reinvent himself as a poppier version of his old-school self. The result is a very weak album, a candidate for the napcore Hall of Fame. The haul-ass guitarist sleepwalks through pedestrian bass-line picking and punk vamps. The 16 songs are sung with all the irony of a political candidate begging for votes. When the Rev comes up with a song title as promising as “Native Tongue of Love,” the title turns out to be the highlight of the exercise. The rest of the tunes have a plodding sense of sameness. Hell, “Revolution Under Foot” sounds like '70s pop rock, à la Steve Miller. Given its source, Space Heater is a bad joke.

— Philip Dawdy

A New High in Low

Pigface were dropping monster beats with attitude long before electronica was supposed to be the next big thing, and the band will be around long after the Prodigys and the Chemical Brotherses of the Earth have exhausted their cache of expropriated ideas. Pigface are a rotating collective of singer/songwriter-players and studio wizards with a soft spot for big beats and racks of processing gear. Headed by democratic drummer and Invisible Records entrepreneur Martin Atkins, the band has skirted the industrial-techno-ambient-hard/art rock line for a decade. With an underground rep for being Chicago's pomo-electro answer to Parliament/Funkadelic — this will make you sweat if you let it — Pigface have even lured rockers who'd typically hurl at the hint of a synthetic blip.

Two years in the making, the double CD A New High in Low is arguably the aggregation's most superdigitized document to date. Through headphones, the album is dangerous: a blistering splatter of deep-space slap-back echoes and vertiginous effects loops vaulting from ear to ear like an electronic flea circus. The freaky delays often fatten Atkins' enormous drum beats, which bore into the subconscious beyond the reach of most drum machines. His boom-b-boom-crack! even makes the album's bombastic techno track, “Methylated,” impossibly infectious. You'll just have to ignore Amy Larson and Dana Cochrane's sincere, trite, but oddly catchy refrain: “Let yourself go-ooooooh/ And your mind will follooooooow.”

The feminine presence on this album is most peculiar. The women singers who augment Atkins' grooves on “Methylated,” “Metal Tangerine,” and “Kiss King” sound starkly unemotional, as if daydreaming of disco days past and finding only hollow variations of white girl soul. Alex Welz and Meg Lee Chin salvage the vocals by introducing saucy verses to “Bring Unto Me” and “Nutopia,” respectively. Welz startles with her rhythmic dry delivery of lyrics like “Bring me your sick, poor and huddled masses/ Bring me your impaled, mutilated minds.” Chin channels the sassiest grrrls of rock's recent past, from Babes in Toyland's Kat Bjelland to Courtney Love. The second disc on New High pretty much consists of an album-length dub exploration, which grows somewhat wearisome (like most dub-ious recordings) after the first 20 minutes. There's ambition, and then there's Pigface.

— Sam Prestianni

The Family Stand

Connected, the title of the new Family Stand recording, their first in over six years, is a bit of a riddle. At face value, it's a reference to the title song, which is about longing, about wanting to be connected. But longtime fans of the group know that the Family Stand are using the word in another sense as well; they are connected to the dominant trends in black pop today, and they spent many years searching for the right frequency.

The Family Stand emerged in the late '80s as one of many Afro-bohemian groups — Living Colour, Follow for Now, the Good Guys, Eye & I — that tried to mash funk, rock, blues, and hip hop into potent, radio-friendly tunes. With the exception of Living Colour, most of these acts floundered, perhaps releasing one disc and disbanding. The Family Stand broke through with the single “Ghetto Heaven,” from their 1990 debut, Chain. The single drew heavily on the percolating bass lines and noirish tone of early '70s funk. The lyrics, which proposed understanding — if not outright tolerance — for illicit drug use among the impoverished, sparked protests. The follow-up album, Moon in Scorpio, was a pop opus. It rocked with a holy fury and its lyrics seethed with pithy social commentary. It quickly became a cult classic.

After about a year of touring behind Moon in Scorpio, the group broke up. Lead singer Sandra St. Victor pursued a solo career, while Peter Lord and V. Jeffrey Smith did production for Paula Abdul (an odd combination that worked surprisingly well) and Des'ree (whose music runs a good bit deeper than her homiletic hit single “You Gotta Be”). Although the musical terrain was unreceptive to the group in the early '90s, the scene has changed dramatically. Now, few of the old rules apply. Iconoclastic artists like Maxwell, Erykah Badu, and Missy Misdemeanor Elliott dominate the black pop landscape, sopping up most of the ink and garnering platinum discs too. Clearly the Family Stand are connected, if only by implication, to current trends, so a reformation (with former Keith Sweat backup singer Jacci McGhee taking over for St. Victor) is timely.

Connected, however, is less than the sum of its parts. Yes, the songs are well constructed, and they will probably smoke live. And yes, the group bases its sound in the soul music of '68-75: The first track, “Keepin' You Satisfied,” has a sunny, Memphis soul vibe going on; the appropriately titled “Butter” sounds like a cover from Stevie Wonder's 1972 Talking Book. But what's missing is the rage and vehemence that drove the previous incarnation. Anger isn't essential to making good music, but passion is. Tracks like “You Don't Have to Worry” and “It Should've Been Me (That Loved You)” — neither of which are covers — are glib. With the exception of “What Must I Do Now,” which reads like a dedication to Tupac, there is little social commentary in the lyrics. Connected is a well-crafted, easygoing record, but that also means that the Family Stand unfortunately decided to make a connection to political disengagement, which is one of the weaker trends in modern black pop music. They led us to expect more.

— Martin Johnson

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