|Howlin' Wolves: Jon
Spencer Blues Explosion's Plastic Fang
After a pretty lengthy hiatus, I'd like to say that the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion are finally ready to talk about the blues again, even if it's a particularly distorted brand of the genre, one recalling Exile-era Stones thankfully pumped as loud as possible through the shittiest speakers on God's green earth. Now for a related anecdote. "I don't play the blues, I play rock 'n' roll," Spencer enigmatically screeched while slamming Rolling Stone -- the slag mag not the group -- in "Talk About the Blues" on the band's last major release, Acme. Yeah, yeah, I know the contradictions are emerging after only two sentences into the review.
Welcome to the twisted world of the greatest blues band to never plays the blues. Kinda.
If you pull the disc out of the band's newest release, the oxymoronically titled Plastic Fang, and check the crimson-soaked pic beneath its place-holder, you'll get the idea of what to expect whenever you spin a JSBX nugget. There stands the shirtless, sweaty Spencer himself, jeans down far enough to show off his hairy ass crack, rocking the mike while Judah and Russell pump up the jam behind him. That's all you need ever think about when you think of the Blues Explosion: a refrigerator repairman's pants full of throbbing noise.
Forget the genres, as Spencer and Co. have, and please (please, please!) forget about lumping the JSBX in with the Strokes and the White Stripes as have countless publications -- from the L.A. Times to Amazon.com -- looking to make the near-flawless Matador label some extra cash. Concerned more with turning out callous-inducing, skin-tight jams than offering color-coordinated, lo-fi blues noise or digging up a CBGB past -- Bloomingdale's punk shirts and all -- that they, unlike the Strokes, were perhaps alive to witness, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion are interested in only one thing: rocking and not giving a shit what anyone else, especially themselves, calls it. If you're not a devotee yet, you don't need simulacra to clue you in to where the originals lie buried.
Especially since the JSBX are no originals themselves, and they'll probably be the first to admit it. Pilfering hardcore blues and rock 'n' roll hooks found everywhere from blues legend John Lee Hooker to punk vets X, the Blues Explosion has always carried a nuclear punch more in its re-presentation of everything that they've been banging through their stereos the last few decades than in original concepts they've spent years of their lives constructing. What has made them stand out over the fifteen or so years they've been destroying stages across America is a striking tightness and energy, whether it be in their kinetic musical synchronicity, their dry throat-inducing live shows, or their relentless riffing.
Witness the heat-seeking missile called "Money Rock 'N' Roll," Plastic Fang's best track by far, which sounds like it was lifted right out of Elvis Presley's grave with his bones still stuck to it. A thunderous stomp filled with dynamic tempo shifts, Spencer's best Bo Diddley rhyming, Bauer's precise but dirty riffing, and Russell Simins' frenetic pounding, the tune is a blistering no-frills jam whose only subject matter is -- you got it -- rocking.
That's usually the case for JSBX -- unless, as in the band's finest release, Orange, they're just singing about themselves. And the trend more or less continues throughout Plastic Fang. "Sweet and Sour" -- whose intro recalls Orange's immortal "Bell Bottoms" -- is a bracing toe-tapper that implores, "Won't ya rock 'n' roll?" Of course, louder than that sentence did. "Hold On" cruises over a similar bottom-soaked, static-filled funk, preceded by the sounds of barhoppers yapping and drinking as if the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion just hopped onstage at the local dive and started ripping shit up. And what a band, too -- "Hold On" features the legendary Dr. John laying down some of his own meaty servings while Parliament Funkadelic alum, Bernie Worrell, adds the mesquite flavoring on the organ.
I'll have what they're having.
If Plastic Fang does carry a common denominator -- other than the desire to have a blast playing and listening to some of the most straight-ahead rock 'n' roll the way it was meant to be played -- it would be Spencer's continual reliance on the werewolf metaphor to explain everything from sexual infidelity to acknowledged guilt or wrongdoing. "I am the ugly one, a monster that feels no pain/I got a life without hope/Because I messed around with three young lives/Forgive me," he laments variously on "Killer Wolf," a song whose dark undertones betray a grievous injustice done to someone. Same goes with "She Said," where Spencer links the werewolf specifically with infidelity -- "She said you done your baby wrong and you know you're gonna die tonight/Now the villagers are coming with their pitchforks and their screaming dogs." There's plenty more to choose from; with titles like "Midnight Creep," "Mean Heart" -- remember where those bad wolves take their fatal silver bullets? -- "Down in the Beast," as well as artwork featuring B-movie or comic book monsters and damsels in distress, the JSBX has stumbled upon a potent motif for songs about screwing around on the wife.
After all, where do you think the term "rock 'n' roll" came from?
Of course, you always have to take anything Spencer sings about with a grain of salt -- or less -- mostly because the blues/rock genre's finest offering to mainstream music has always been such garish tales of love, er, I mean sexual urges gone wrong. Plus, the guy is married to alterna-babe Cristina Martinez of Boss Hogg and (kinda) Pussy Galore fame (both of which featured Spencer on guitar) so it's doubtful he's been running around behind her back. She'd outright kill his ass.
No, more likely than not, the JSBX hooked up with a veteran rock 'n' roll producer -- Steve Jordan, who's helmed projects for Keith Richards and the Blues Brothers (!) -- and veteran rock 'n' roll imagery to help fashion this latest model of their no-holds-barred, traditional rock throwdowns. And, of course, everything's working fine. Although they've left the more fractured, splintered punk behind in favor of standard blues rock riffs, make no mistake about it -- these wolves still have teeth, and they bite real hard.
Scott Thill -- a media fanatic who finds the time to write on everything that does not include the words "boy band" -- is a gainfully employed dotcom editor currently finishing his first novel, The Dangerous Perhaps.
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Pity poor Matador Records. A mere seven or eight years ago, Gerard Cosloy and Chris Lombardi's New York label was the undisputed king of the alternative rock world, sporting a roster full of just-off-the-mainstream-radar luminaries like Pavement, Liz Phair, and Guided by Voices. But since then, Matador's thoroughbreds have all weakened, be it from a) recording silence after marriage/childbirth/divorce, b) loss of uniqueness from courting radio, or c) splintering into less compelling solo entities. Were it not for lucrative back catalog sales and a pack of Scottish nancy-boys, Matador would surely be frolicking in record label heaven with IRS and Twin/Tone.
Jon Spencer and his Blues Explosion weren't quite in the upper echelon of the above artists, but they were sufficiently high profile to appear in Rolling Stone and on 120 Minutes back in those headier mid-nineties. At their peak, JSBX straddled the line between novelty act and early-rock throwback by whitening up the blues behind Spencer's 'Elvis with Tourette's Syndrome' vocals. It was an entertaining gimmick, albeit one with a short shelf life, and it was already starting to fizzle by the time of 1995's Now I Got Worry. Perhaps recognizing this, the band experimented with Dan the Automator and Alec Empire for the Acme and Xtra-Acme albums, to uniformly bland results.
In response to those failures, Spencer & Co. have returned to the basics for Plastic Fang: two guitars, a bag full of riffs, and frequent interjections of "Blues Explosion!" Never mind the tiny fact that the band's gimmick, if tired in the mid-nineties, is downright comatose these days. Nobody seems to have informed JSBX that the world's music warehouse has become overstocked on pale-faced blues, with the White Stripes, etc. improving the sound by keeping things quick and raw while dispensing with the ironic wink.
Or perhaps the Blues Explosion is aware of the garage revival, and looking to claim some kind of Neil Young-esque patriarchal crown. If so, the dozen tracks of Plastic Fang fail miserably, giving off the appearance of a 35 year-old accountant hanging around the old frat house on Homecoming weekend. From the limp rockabilly of first single "She Said" to the faux-live party-stomper "Hold On," the Blues Explosion never venture outside of territory they haven't already beaten to death, producing hollow echoes of their stronger early days.
Don't fault Russell Simins, whose Grade-A drumming on "Money Rock N' Roll" and "The Midnight Creep" is comparable to putting a Corvette engine in a Ford Focus. No, blame should be firmly thrown towards bandleader Spencer, whose drawling soul man act has shifted from tongue-in-cheek egotism to outright cartoon. Punctuating verses with yells of "Blues Explosion!" and "Rock and roll!" might have amused me when I was 15, but in an age where Jay-Z self-promotes seventeen different aliases over the course of an album, Spencer sounds just plain out-of-touch. Given that Plastic Fang lyrically seems to be a loose concept album casting Spencer as a werewolf... well, that really doesn't even require further comment.
The dual guitar interplay of Spencer and Judah Bauer remains spottily potent, as on "Over and Over," but usually loses its charm by the one-minute point of the song. Had JSBX kept things short and poorly recorded, a stronger case could probably have been made for salvaging this project. But tracks tend to stretch out over four lifelessly produced minutes so that Spencer can make tired Frampton and James Brown references, coasting along with a fraction of the energetic kick they used to have. It's ironic, and a little bit sad, to see a band whose original goal was to steer the music world back towards Marquee Club-era Stones grow as stodgy and irrelevant as Steel Wheels-era Stones.
So while JSBX hasn't formally announced Plastic Fang as their farewell album, this writer's going to go ahead and pronounce them officially deceased (hopefully tricking them into retiring). In true series finale style, it's time to fire up Green Day's "Time of Your Life" and run the slo-mo highlight reel: the brilliant Aerosmith/Run DMC sendup video for "Flavor," that other video where John C. Reilly played Simins, the collaborations with R.L. Burnside and Rufus Thomas, and what the hell, Spencer's wife Cristina Martinez running around in a bra and miniskirt. Farewell, Blues Explosion... we knew ye too well.
-Rob Mitchum, April 18th, 2002
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