Album Review: ZZ Top – Tres Hombres (#MWE)

To modern ears, at least initially, Tres Hombres probably just sounds like a standard Southern rock album, an eager effort to capitalize on the success of the genre that was beginning to be all the rage in the early 70s. To an extent that’s true – ZZ Top’s third album grabbed hold of the public in a way that their previous efforts did not. But listen closer and you’ll hear something peculiar. Something maybe you can’t put your finger on. That thing is the ZZ Top Of It All, the idiosyncratic tales from Billy Gibbons, the unpolished sound, the supremely fun delivery. It’s a twist on a familiar sound that the trio all but perfected on Tres Hombres.

The lean, half hour album opens with a straight shot of boogie blues on “Waitin’ For the Bus,” which seamlessly segues into another blues rock jam; by this point you might be worried the whole album is going to sound like this, but Gibbons’ raw guitar tone on “Jesus Just Left Chicago” will keep you intrigued. From there, we are driven along a Texas highway via the band’s trademark chugging road trip rhythms on “Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers.” Later on, things slow down and switch up for the love song “Hot Blue and Righteous.”

There’s a lot of lore among ZZ Top fans (my dad’s favorite band, btw.) Speculation endures regarding whether, in lieu of a pick, Gibbons got his unique, Texas-sized guitar tone from playing with a Mexican peso. Southern rock gives a nod to a lot of things, depending on what band you’ve got on the turntable: Dixieland pride, the joy of making music in the middle of nowhere, the lost desperation of living in the middle of nowhere. ZZ Top were all about mystique and elusiveness; their version of the sound is undeniably Texan, at once boastful, mysterious, rooted in history, familiar yet otherworldly. And like Texans, It can’t be bothered with the other Southern notions; ZZ Top were doing their own thing.

“La Grange,” arguably the band’s signature song, is the best example of this distinct sound, a perfect stew of bouncy blues, erratic drum fills, and barely decipherable lyrics. This song, this style, is paramount to the band’s immortal success; they are a foundational group that dodges pesky things like the passing of time and the rise and fall of surrounding trends. It is why a band so indebted to the blues of B.B. King could influence someone on the other side of the rock spectrum, Steve Albini.

That is the ZZ Top Effect. And it all started with Tres Hombres, a one-two punch of blues, ghost stories, and that trademark Texas charm.

Score: 9/10

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