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Sharp Dressed Men: A Tribute to ZZ Top (RCA)

Tribute albums are generally "great ideas" that in most cases should have stayed just that. Sure, there are some that work -- from the Sweet Relief collection of Victoria Williams songs to the recent Ray Davies/Kinks set This Is Where I Belong -- but rarely do they do so in the ham-fisted hands of Nashville's Music Row.

Sharp Dressed Men ain't that bad, but neither is it as bad (in the good sense) or as nationwide as the lil' ol' band from the Bayou City. It's hardly over-reaching for Nashville to salute a group whose Texas boogie is as much a touchstone for contemporary country's sometimes laughable rock-and-roll yearnings as Lynyrd Skynyrd's redneck rock. But tribute albums work only when the reinterpretations become revelatory glimpses into the original songs. This one is pretty much just ZZ Top karaoke night on Music Row.

As might be expected, the best and most imaginative take here is Willie Nelson's swinging "She Loves My Automobile," which avoids the ZZ Xerox approach that mars most of this set. Hanks Jr. and III both display their natural affinities for ZZ-style boogie workouts, especially the latter's full-steam freight-train take on "Fearless Boogie." And while Dwight Yoakam could sing a computer manual and make it reek with country soul, his version of "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide" reads like a toss-off, albeit an enjoyable one.

In the hands of such classy singers as Brad Paisley and Alan Jackson, songs like "Sharp Dressed Man" and "Sure Got Cold After the Rain Fell" nicely display the country leanings within many ZZ Top songs, and Beaumont's Tracy Byrd gives a rare glimpse of grit with his "La Grange."

But even with Top's solid material as the template, far too much of this set sounds like the same overamped, nervously busy approach that makes the stuff the Row calls country these days so cheesy and pukey. One can almost taste the saliva of the Nashville session pickers drooling to match the peerless guitar tones of the Reverend Billy G, with little success. After all, one of ZZ Top's secrets was the three-piece sparseness underneath the punch that made it work, a point utterly lost on these frenetic NashVegas strivers. And maybe if RCA had some of Nashville's gals on here -- it's the women of Music City whose work is more worthy these days -- this deal might have been more than an exercise in the cover-band ethos.

 
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