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JUNE 19, 2000: 

The Reverend Horton Heat Spend a Night in the Box (Time Bomb Recordings)

The latest from this Dallas, Texas, trio teems with unabashed boogie-woogie in one of its purest and most potent forms -- rockabilly, played loud, fast, and hard, almost bordering on roots punk at times. Although it offers no surprises, this CD consistently delivers a relentless barrage of primeval rock-and-roll at the high level of quality we've come to expect from this hot band which worships at the altar of '50s culture.

A number of things set the Reverend Horton Heat apart from your average rockabilly band. First, there's the fact that this group is just as comfortable churning out surf and swing as they are playing a Charlie Feathers-type number. Then there's the Reverend's (Jim Heath's) occasionally transcendental guitar, which can jump from a Ventures run to a Duane Eddy riff with the greatest of ease. He's a writer with a good ear who almost intuitively senses the tiny, but vital, details that set a mere copy apart from a fresh composition. Finally, there's his voice, smooth and expressive but with a hint of brassiness that's perfect for the genre.

The pace of the CD never lets up. The title track is a crisp, fresh swing tune inspired by the movie Cool Hand Luke, with a great call-and-response feature. The excellent "Girl in Blue" is the aural equivalent of a Betty Page pinup, with a smooth-as-silk vocal layered over some blistering bossa nova. The standard RHH subject matter prevails (lust for jailbait, Olympic-scale boozing, and a reverence for vintage vehicles), and the Reverend usually gets the traditional campy lyrics spot-on. Occasionally, though, as in the country-flavored "The Bedroom Again," he just gets a bit slushy.

Despite this, the overall ferocity and full-tilt boogie of the record are mind-boggling. One favorite is the instrumental "The Millionaire," which could be subtitled "Dick Dale Goes to Morocco," with its fabulous reverb and Middle Eastern flavor. And "Big D Boogie Woogie" has a jungle-swamp beat that gets you sweaty just listening to it.

All told, another fine slice of rockabilly redux that sizzles through and through. -- Lisa Lumb

Ricky Skaggs & Tony Rice Skaggs & Rice: The Essential Old-Time Country Duet Recordings (Sugar Hill)

Both mandolinist Ricky Skaggs and acoustic guitarist Tony Rice first came to international prominence throughout the world's (particularly North America's) multilinked bluegrass circles, separately and occasionally together.

Like many full-fledged jazzers who passed through the Miles Davis "school," so did several notable players "graduate" from J.D. Crowe's the New South, including Rice and Skaggs. Early on, Rice merged creatively with San Francisco mandolin monster David Grisman to spawn "dawg" music, a combination of bluegrass and jazz that stands as one of the previous century's most artistically successful, durable, and honorable musical hybrids. During more or less the same period, Skaggs continued to cement his status as a bluegrass superstar (if the term doesn't strike the reader as too incongruous), though he did at that time experiment a bit with the notion of expanding the genre.

Later, as everyone knows, Skaggs directed his career path into the welcoming arms of the country music industry and made quite a name for himself in those plush quarters. Rice continued to make traditional bluegrass records and jazz-grass records (though it's been said that he preferred and prefers the former).

Back in 1980, when both musicians were starting to enjoy deservedly respectable reputations as virtuoso instrumentalists of the very highest order, they made the decision to intersect at Arch St. Studios in Berkeley, California, to record Skaggs & Rice. Faithful followers, knowing that both Skaggs and Rice possessed superb country/bluegrass voices, were not surprised that these two opted to showcase vocals within the context of old and traditional material bravely executed with the starkness of mandolin and guitar only, choosing to tone down their collective capacity to solo like nobody's business. (There are definitely a few moments of laudable instrumental soloing here, but those are not "selling points," if you understand what I mean.)

This reissue is billed as "old-time country." Now, I am fully aware that trad country is, on several levels, connected to "that old-time religion," but a journalistic sense of responsibility leads me to point out the irrefutable fact that this is overwhelmingly a white, Southern gospel album. Most of the tunes on Skaggs & Rice are about the glorious realm beyond the one in which we mortals in this or any given epoch toil.

There are a couple of moments during which the album's focus shifts from, shall I say, the Jesus agenda to more earthly concerns. Like: "There's More Pretty Girls Than One," which rejoices in an abundance of what I can only describe as a God-given supply of desirable snatch.

Skaggs & Rice is a well-executed collection of old songs, which I suspect were originally written in response to a bewilderment regarding cosmic forces. -- Stephen Grimstead

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