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Talk About The Blues Explosion

| October 20, 2010 | 0 Comments

At long last, Majordomo/Shout Factory finishes trotting out the ’90s Jon Spencer Blues Explosion catalog, unveiling Orange and Acme with the loving care of actual, venerated blues recordings.

JSBX, of course, were a ’90s garage-rock band that caught the imagination of Matador/Sub Pop/Merge subscribers, delivering a wildman archetype to counter the Christ-posing and navel-gazing souls spearheading Alternative Nation. Like Greg Dulli, Spencer was his own creation and one based heavily on an amalgamation of musical forbearers — mostly Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and James Brown. Unlike Dulli, he was dominion of his fans, largely shyboy indie rockers who needed him to prove to themselves that they weren’t just sad-sack, record-collecting mopes. Spencer was the exception that proved the rule, even if his stage persona was understood as an ironic gag.

If you haven’t been following along, the reissue campaign would seem to be run by chimps: starting with a greatest hits (in time for a quick reunion tour), beginning in earnest with 1996’s Now I Got Worry, then tracing back to the beginning for the first four outings, and finally covering ’94 and ’98 with these two. Upon inspection, Majordomo submits that Worry is the band’s essence, the if-you-buy-just-one centerpiece, which is debatable if allowable. But the truth is most of the people who know the band know them from Orange.

Presented here with some extra tracks and the European version of the tag-along Experimental Remixes EP, Orange — though not the most typical of the band’s albums — still stands on its own. The historical context provided by the extras doesn’t really tell the story, and maybe actually would be better paired with Worry (so rough are the bonus tracks) and Acme (where hip-hop influence is more pronounced). It’s so strong an album, the band had to embellish Worry‘s fuck-you attitude to avoid becoming pigeonholed. Spencer no doubt knew the difference between his character and the real him, but here’s the first time he successfully sells himself as immersed in the role and makes it an essential ingredient, throwing everything behind opener “Bellbottoms” to establish the idea.

Though hip-hop clearly flows through Russell Simins’ trap kit, it’s a red-herring. The telephone rap by Beck and later Spencer’s G-funk theremin transmissions are idiot’s-grin in-jokes. White drives Orange is a basic refinement of the band’s well-worn principles. The Stooges’ “Seek & Destroy” can be heard almost every time the pace picks up, but wisely it’s a trick used sparingly. At times it seems Spencer makes it a responsibility to act like an amateur (“Baby, baby/You sure like to fuck!/Fuuuuuuuck!”), but improved musicianship always comes back to bite him. The underrated “Ditch” and “Dissect” will never steal thunder from “Bellbottoms,” “Sweat,” “Blues X Man,” and “Full Grown,” which all cater to Spencer’s legend, but they couldn’t have moved on without them.

If Orange opened JSBX to their potential in the studio, Acme — especially after the primitive Now I Got Worry — bore the brunt of that realization. A host of producers (including Dan The Automator, Steve Albini, and Jim Dickinson) helped assemble an initially thrilling if disjointed listen. If anything, the shoehorning of engineering schools derails the most important element of any rock album: thrust. Trying to listen through the elements (aside from the simple pleasures provided by “Magical Colours,” “Blue Green Olga,” and “Bernie” only makes you more aware of how unchained the Spencer monster has become on “Lovin Machine” and “Torture.” Included with the reissue is the ’99 followup Xtra Acme USA.

— Steve Forstneger

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