The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

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After a long and semi-successful tenure as leader of scuzz-rock heroes Pussy Galore, Jon Spencer shook up his anti-rock vision and hooked up with guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins to create the scuzz-blues trio the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Postmodern to the core, there was a genuine irony in the band’s name; little of what they play resembles standard blues. There is, however, a blues feel to their sound, meaning that in many instances they appropriate aspects of the blues and incorporate them into their anarchic, noisy sound. Spencer clearly wasn’t playing the blues, but a real if fractured appreciation of blues and R&B was audible in the band’s music amid the chaotic wail of guitars and drums. Not part of alt-rock’s commercial establishment (at least not at the start), Spencer also managed to sharply divide critics who tended to see him as either an inspired showman or a mendacious con man. He did, however, gain popularity and critical respect during the ’90s, largely on the strength of the Blues Explosion’s ferocious live show. As with Royal Trux, the other band to emerge after the breakup of Pussy Galore, the Blues Explosion’s earliest recordings are virtually incomprehensible. The bass-less mix is awash in distorted guitars, precious little backbeat, and howled vocals. In its favor is the music’s exciting, improvisatory feel; also true is that it’s frequently incoherent and careless, and doesn’t hold up well to repeated listenings. It was with the Blues Explosion’s 1992 self-titled release and the almost immediate follow-up Crypt Style that the band began to write coherent songs: Spencer adopted an affected blues vocal style, and the band riffed wildly and crashed around him in a bluesy manner. The Blues Explosion’s “breakthrough” came (as it did for Royal Trux) when they began to fold elements of ’70s rock and funk into their fractured punk-blues fusion. With the release of Extra Width in 1993, Spencer and company got some air time on MTV’s alt-rock show 120 Minutes with the video for the song “Afro.” There was a new emphasis on tight songs, funky backbeats, and loads of catchy riffs and hooks. As for Spencer, he was now singing like a crazed Elvis impersonator, but, in turn, lost some of the condescending attitude. Live, the band was (and remains) quite a show, generating the kind of sweat and excitement that became anathema to many punk and post-punk bands. Orange, which was even more accessible than Extra Width (and featured a guest spot from Beck), netted the band even more fans upon its release in 1994, and began to capture the vibe of their live gigs; 1996′s Now I Got Worry and 1998′s Acme were also successful, and the latter was an unusually ambitious attempt to take their sound in new directions, mixing in elements of hip-hop and electronica. Spencer and his bandmates also shored up their often shaky blues cred by serving as backing band for R.L. Burnside on his 1996 album A Ass Pocket of Whiskey. The band took a long hiatus thereafter, only returning four years later with 2002′s Plastic Fang and 2004′s Damage (the latter their first record for Sanctuary after a long tenure with Matador), a pair of relatively polished albums produced by Steve Jordan. In 2007, JSBX released a collection of their “Jukebox Series” singles for In the Red Records, after which they went on extended hiatus. The Blues Explosion re-formed to play some shows when their catalog got the deluxe reissue treatment in 2010 via the Shout! Factory-distributed Major Domo label (they also released a career-spanning “best-of” set, Dirty Shirt Rock 'n' Roll), and the band issued the “Black Betty” single for Amphetamine Reptile in 2011. In September of 2012, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion re-emerged with the full-length Meat + Bone. In 2015, JSBX paid homage to their hometown of New York with a new album, Freedom Tower: No Wave Dance Party 2015, recorded at Brooklyn’s Daptone House of Soul studio and mixed with help from hip-hop punk producer Alap Momin. ~ John Dougan & Mark Deming