Friday, February 08, 2008

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: JON SPENCER -- THE TRASHMAN COMETH

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
February 8, 2008


I didn’t realize until a few weeks ago when I downloaded a rarities compilation called Jukebox Explosion: Rockin’ Mid-90s Punkers! by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion just how much I’ve missed Jon Spencer in all his get-down gonzo glory.

It’s not that Spencer hasn’t been around. In recent years, he’s done a couple of albums under the guise of Heavy Trash, a quasi-rockabilly duo with Matt Verta-Ray. True, Heavy Trash is kind of fun — I really enjoyed their guest appearance on The Sadies’ In Concert, Volume One album a couple of years ago.

But Heavy Trash is just a light snack compared with the all-you-can-eat, Hound Dog Taylor-on-angel-dust banquet that was the Blues Explosion, which hasn’t released an album of new material in four years.

The JSBE seemed to be everywhere back in the last decade. The band once opened for The Breeders at a Sweeney Center show here in Santa Fe. You could say Spencer and the boys tore up the place years before the city did.

Spencer started the Blues Explosion following the breakup of his ’80s band, Pussy Galore, a delightfully raunchy and anarchic group that received even less mainstream notice than the Blues Explosion. (Some of the group’s album titles I can’t even print in a “family” newspaper, and I probably shouldn’t admit how much I like ’em.)

For the Blues Explosion, Spencer recruited fellow guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins for a stripped-down (not even a bass!) sound. Aghast blues purists never fail to note that this band did not produce sounds normally associated with the blues.

However, as one wise critic noted in a review of one of the group’s early albums, they did play blues and soul riffs, but it was blues filtered through The Stooges and New York Dolls. It’s a sweaty, joyful sound. Spencer and crew were roots conscious but not shackled to tradition. When they teamed up with Mississippi blues shouter R.L. Burnside on the 1996 album A Asspocket of Whiskey, Spencer, Bauer, and Simins fit right in, adding spirit and energy what must have been some wild recording sessions.

Jukebox Explosion is a collection of mostly old singles that had been available only on 7-inch vinyl, which means only serious collectors had ever heard this stuff before now. (And some tracks have been previously unreleased.) Most of the songs were recorded from the band’s mid-’90s glory days, although some are later.

“Ghetto Mom,” for instance, is an outtake from Plastic Fang, the Explosion’s 2002 album. Unserious collectors who love Spencer won’t be disappointed. All 18 tracks are high-charged, high-decibel offerings to the voodoo blues gods with Spencer howling like a soulman trapped in the rubble of a subway wreck.

The album is released on a label called In the Red — which might describe the company’s finances, though more likely it’s a reference to where the sound-level needle was when these songs were recorded.

There’s an ode to a serial killer, “Son of Sam,” which features a jittery guitar intro and a guest saxophone player who makes the horn scream in sympathy with the killer’s victims. And there’s a tribute to an exotic dancer, a chaotic little rocker called “Show Girl,” featuring background vocals by Spencer’s wife, Cristina Martinez (formerly of Pussy Galore, now with the band Boss Hog).

The Explosion actually slows down for “Jailhouse Blues,” an ominous spoken-word dirge featuring Spencer on theremin. In the minute-and-a-half “Get With It,” there’s a desperate harmonica and a crazy piano. I thought the latter probably was the ivory tickler from Reefer Madness, but in reality it’s none other than Dr. John.

All in all, this is beautiful trash, and I’m happy to see it unleashed to the masses.

Also recommended

*The Black and White Album by The Hives. Despite what The Hives may tell you, The Hives is not my favorite band.

I do enjoy these Swedish meatheads quite a lot, however, and few current bands have made a dent in the mainstream rock as relentlessly as The Hives.

On The Black and White Album, the first Hives album in about three years, the band, fronted by singer Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist, continues down its path of straight-ahead, punk-metal-edged guitar rock.

The band saved its best for the first. “Tick Tick Boom” is the hardest rocker on the record and an instant classic Hives tune. The group sounds like it’s been listening to Green Day on the bouncy “You Dress Up for Armageddon.” But The Hives go for the throat on other rockers like “You Got it All ... Wrong,” “Square One Here I Come” (check out the Alice Cooper influence here), and the album closer “Bigger Hole to Fill.”

The Hives frequently display an off-kilter sense of humor and their special way with self-referential titles and shameless self-promotion. For instance one song is called “T.H.E.H.I.V.E.S.” (”We rule the world/ This is our world,” goes the robotic chorus.)

There’s also an instrumental tune called “A Stroll Through Hive Manor Corridors,” a break from the romp ’n’ roll, that features a creepy Casio organ. This one, as well as the piano-led singalong “Puppet on a String” (no, not the Elvis Presley song) are in the tradition of other inspired sore-thumb tracks that stick out on Hives albums — the weirdo soul of “Diabolic Scheme” on Tyrannosaurus Hives and the quirky Impressions cover “Find Another Girl” on Veni Vidi Vicious.

The Hives long ago wore out their “next-big-thing” status, but its great they’re still having this much fun on record.

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