Over the course of 15 years, the Reverend Horton Heat has explored every possible variation on rockabilly punk. This means that, like the Ramones, when you buy one of his records you pretty much know what you’re going to get – a dozen or so loud songs about cars, drinking, women, and kicking ass. When you do one thing for so long, the only way to remain vital is to begin digging deeper. For The Reverend Horton Heat, this means drawing on his new found maturity: in the last few years, he has lost his mother, lost a friend to heroin, and had a new baby. For the first time his life experiences inform his music.
Although his new album Revival, (2004, Yep Roc Records) kicks off with the now-obligatory fast guitar instrumental that starts most of his records (this one called “The Happy Camper”), the very next song is a bewildered and heartsick lament that he’s still alive but not happier (“I’ve done my share of stupid things, I regret to say / And whatever I may do now, time may not repay / I’m just looking for revival, today may be the day”). Unlike in the past, where his “tragedy” songs were done with tongue firmly in cheek, now James Heath is delivering the goods for real. It is a matter of degree, but for the first time a Reverend Horton Heat song hits close to home. However, lest you think the good Reverend has gone all emo on us, he follows right up with “Calling In Twisted,” a little ditty about using “the fake cough” when calling off work.
For those among you who have not been initiated into the secrets of the Heat, The Reverend Horton Heat is James Heath of Texas, the tattoed guitar slinger at the vanguard of the punkabilly movement since 1991. Author of classic songs like “I Like Steak,” “Bales of Cocaine,” “Livin’ on the Edge (of Houston),” “Nurture My Pig,” “It’s Martini Time” and “Big Sky,” Heath has been touring constantly for years, bringing his mix of hepped up rockabilly, punk, and sleazy greaser attitude to audiences around the world.
In his early days he was taken under the wing of heavies like Gibby Haynes (who produced 1993′s The Full Custom Gospel Sounds of the Reverend Horton Heat) and Al Jourgensen (who produced 1994′s Liquor in the Front). He has sinced moved on to an ongoing relationship with veteran producer Ed Stasium. Although albums helmed by Stasium typically sound like they were recorded on one microphone in a parking garage, in the case of the Reverend this actually works, since Stasium’s simple bass-drums-guitar-plenty o’ reverb setup gives added dimension to the band’s attack.
Despite the discovery of these heretofore unsuspected depths to Jim Heath’s psyche, Revival is still vintage Heat. He still plays guitar like a demon, spraying notes like a firehose over top of Jimbo Jones’ slap bass and Scott Churilla’s metalbilly drumming. As usual the Reverend raises a respectable ruckus, and as usual by song number fifteen the well has run a little dry.
The newfound depths suit him well, but for all its strengths, Revival is less consistent than some of his older albums. If you’re a fan it’s worth having, but if you are new to the Rev, there is no beating the manic punch of The Full Custom Gospel Sounds of the Reverend Horton Heat. Kudos to Yep Roc for landing the Reverend, but if they have another record in the contract, next time their A&R department should hold the Rev to a dozen great songs total.