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November 8, 1995

Roll of the Dice

TbirdsThe Fabulous Thunderbirds, Roll of the Dice (Private Music 1995) - For their ninth album, the regrouped Fabulous Thunderbirds have returned to their roots. Gone is the more pop-oriented sound that dominated such hit albums as Tuff Enuff and Powerful Stuff. Instead, the band has returned to its bluesy, rocking roots for these 12 cuts. The result is a loud, solid album, with lots of tasty guitar and tremendous vocals by Kim Wilson.

Wilson originally founded The Fabulous Thunderbirds in the mid-1970s, after meeting guitarist Jimmie Vaughan during a jam session at the legendary Antone's Blues Club in Austin, Texas. The Fabulous Thunderbirds soon became the house band at Antone's, where they played with a veritable who's who of visiting blues stars.

During this period, Wilson came under the wing of one of the great bluesmen, Muddy Waters. Says Wilson, "He was like my pop. I still get a little weird when I think he's gone. He made my reputation. If you have his seal of approval, you're golden."

After years of success, the Thunderbirds went through a major change in 1990 when Vaughan left to follow his dream of forming a band with his younger brother, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Of course, Stevie Ray was tragically killed in a helicopter accident just before the Vaughan Brothers album, Family Style, was released. Jimmie continued his solo career, and Wilson broke up the band. However, after two solo albums, he decided to regroup the band.

The revamped Fabulous Thunderbirds feature the generously-talented Kid Ramos on guitar (Ramos also has a new solo blues album on Black Top Records called Two Hands, One Heart), long-time studio man Danny Kortchmar (who has also played with Don Henley, Billy Joel, and Linda Ronstadt) on rhythm guitar, charter member Fran Christina on drums, Harvey Brooks on bass, and Gene Taylor on keyboards.

With production work from cult-hero Kortchmar (who also produced Linda Ronstadt's overlooked punk album, Mad Love), Roll the Dice is sizzling blues, even on the terrific barrio-influenced cover of the Disney classic, "Zip Ah Dee Do Dah" (which was recorded in only two cuts).

The Thunderbirds also tear it up on such spirited cuts as "Mean Love" (which features Wilson on harmonica) and "Too Many Irons in the Fire," before slowing down for a cover of Van Morrison's "Here Comes the Night."

By searching for a grittier sound in the vein of Los Lobos or John Hiatt, the Thunderbirds have released one of their most satisfying albums in years. With Wilson's honest blues stylings and driving guitar work from Kid Ramos, Roll the Dice is a welcome return for the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Find this album.

DesperadoSoundtrack to Desperado (Epic Soundtrax 1995) - For the sequel to his acclaimed (but low budget) hit El Mariachi, writer/director Robert Rodriguez recruited Los Lobos to write, produce, and perform the original score. The result is this 60-minute disc, which features moody rock music against sound bites from the movie (ala the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction).

Much like Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns (including A Fistful of Dollars), Desperado is the story of an unnamed avenger seeking to destroy a drug lord who has taken control of a town. In the course of his one-man war, the hero kills a large portion of the drug lord's crew before finally confronting him face-to-face.

I won't give away the ending, but suffice to say that Desperado is long on action and gunplay and short on plot. There's lots of mood and character setting (including Cheech Marin as the bartender and Steve Buscemi as the hero's right-hand man), together with the lovely Salma Hayek as the heroine (though Hayek's singing voice is weak, as revealed on her solo cut, "Quedate Aqui").

Now with a real budget, director Rodriguez describes his new film as "the second in a unique series of movies set in Mexico with this artist/musician as the hero, a man in black with a guitar case full of weapons."

On Desperado, Los Lobos used everything in its considerable musical arsenal, ranging from old Mexican instruments to exotic percussion pieces, to create a sonic landscape. "They'd try anything," Rodriguez marvels. "Like Ennio Morricone's scores, you'd hear a whistle and then a guitar - all kinds of things you wouldn't think go together, but they did."

Dialogue excerpts appear in the soundtrack, cleverly punctuating many instrumental selections. Thus, Cheech Marin (formerly of Cheech & Chong) gleefully evaluates his chances in a barfight, only to have Link Wray's "Jack the Ripper" come charging in to tear everything up. Similarly, Steve Buscemi's description of the mariachi in all of his mythical stature is followed by Dire Straits' hauntingly atmospheric, "Six Blade Knife."

In addition to great tracks from Los Lobos such as "Bulletproof" and "Let Love Reign," the album also features several moody numbers by the Latin Playboys (an offshoot of Los Lobos) and a pair of hard-charging tracks by barrio blasters Tito & Tarantula. In particular, Tito's "White Train (Showdown)," which accompanies the climatic gunfight, practically leaves powderburns itself.

As director Rodriguez recalls, "When I first sat down to write Desperado, I knew that if we did this movie right, it would have all of this great music going through this man's head as he went on his adventure." Rodriguez held true to his vision - the soundtrack done right, and stands on its own.

-- Randy Krbechek

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