Jon Spencer Blues Explosion CD review by James Toth

Music Reviews
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion CD review by James Toth
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Jan 16, 2008, 19:23

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - Jukebox Explosion
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JON SPENCER BLUES EXPLOSION Jukebox Explosion CD

Post-millennium rock criticism has been rather unfair to Jon Spencer and his long suffering Blues Explosion, but if your first and only impression of the band rested on their explosive run of singles released on In The Red, you'd be forgiven for thinking they were the greatest—and most inventive—rock band the American underground had produced since Sonic Youth. The band currently enjoys novelty status, still misunderstood by many as the very personification of Alternative Nation irony. In some circles, the band's very name is a punch line, a euphemism for ‘one trick pony.' I refute these claims, and offer Jukebox Explosion, a new compilation of the five jukebox-style singles released throughout the band's career, as evidence to the contrary.

I'll readily admit the band had a particularly indefensible self-indulgent side—collaborations with Dub Narcotic, ill-advised remix albums, and the like—but if one narrows down JSBX's relative successes, what emerges is a band with a better hit-to-miss ratio than most of their 90s contemporaries.

Let's break it down—because, after all, JSBX is nothing if not a band that reads great on paper: A wildly creative band of able musicians, fronted by a charismatic lunatic who never let things like respect for club property and the personal boundaries of audience members get in the way of creating a memorable performance for all involved. Influences? How about Howlin' Wolf, The Magic Band, and The Cramps, for starters? Sound good yet? How about you add to the whole shebang the deviant (if notoriously urbane) New York scumfuck-at-large persona that Spencer cultivated fronting Pussy Galore?

The band as one-trick-pony was a criticism that always frustrated me. Sure, the band never split musical atoms, but compare the slow crawl soul that is their reading of mentor and occasional collaborator Andre Williams' “Jailhouse Blues” to the band's own urgent, howling “Shirt Jac.” Would an ordinary blues band cover Chain Gang's “Son of Sam,” and give the Contortions a run for their money doing it? Could any garden variety NYC pigfuck band have written “Caroline,” the most vindictive record label kiss-off since the Pistols called out EMI?

Not likely. Spencer and cohorts Judah Bauer and Russell Simins may not have been what you'd call innovators, but they certainly invented their thing—the band has one of the more recognizable sounds in all of rock. Even their most fervent detractors must admit that, like Frank Zappa, Stereolab, or Bob Dylan, within five seconds of any their tunes, there is no confusing JSBX with any other artist on the planet.

It's ironic that JSBX is vilified for the very same ultra-reverent, back-to-basics approach that has earned the White Stripes critical accolades and veritable celebrity status. You might argue that the difference is Jack White knows how to write a good tune. Fair enough. But while Spencer's caterwaul might be a little more rooted in minstrel show snake oil than White's, like White, Spencer's love for the musical culture he strongly references is never in doubt. To consider what Spencer does is some kind of send-up or piss take is to give him—or anyone—far too much credit. Like the guitar shredders in The Fucking Champs, Orthrelm, or any number of metal dudes accused of being ‘ironic' by a clueless indie universe, there's simply no way someone gets as good at something by initially conceiving it by wondering “Wouldn't it be really funny if….?” This is disrespectful to the artists who, in the case of shredders like Tim Green and Mick Barr, had to practice their asses off playing boring scales for hours at a time. In Spencer's case, you have to assume that the dude soaked up as much as he could about the blues in lieu of ever having had to really experience them.

Juke Box Explosion comes packaged appropriately in cover art by Mort Todd of Back From The Grave fame, and features a depiction of the band burying LPs by 90s bands who couldn't survive the post-Nevermind glut. As an album, it is not perfect—the sequencing is befuddling, with the A-sides and B-sides of the original singles separated, with random non-album tracks thrown in for good measure. Latter day tracks like “Ghetto Mom” sound more phoned-in than the others, a fact made plain by inexplicably presenting these tracks in a random clusterfuck as opposed to chronologically. But overall, it makes a better case for JSBX the band and Jon Spencer the artist than I could in a few scant paragraphs.Â

Take a good hard look at what's being fed to you by the major indie labels and hip publications right now. Insufferable sad sacs that make The Cure sound like Blue Cheer: Copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy shoegaze ‘revivalists;' Cookie cutter ‘rock' bands that sound utterly indistinguishable from one another. What you need is some Jon Spencer, his crazy Theremin, and the SOUND, baby, which, it can never be argued, is, and will forever be, all his. The Blues is number one! [In The Red]

-James Jackson Toth

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