White Punks on Blues
How good is the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion? So good that four years after the release of the band's screeching, wailing debut album from '92, the Blues Explosion towers over nearly every other punk-blues fusionist shimmying and shrieking on the indie-rock circuit. Over the course of five longplayers and numerous singles, they've become a presence as seemingly indomitable as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf were during the urban blues heyday of the Fifties -- the benchmark to which even remotely similar artists must inevitably be compared. Of course, the competition is admittedly slim; few of the groups working in the Blues Explosion's domain are up to the task of taking new whacks at the bedrock of blues history. Comparing the Explosion to the critically lauded and recently disbanded group Jack o' Fire, for instance, is like comparing the work of inspired inheritors of a tradition to the energetic rumblings of a cover band (which, despite all the hoo-hah in the fanzines, is all Jack o' Fire ever was).
The Blues Explosion's dense, cacophonous sound is dominated by the charismatic Jagger-esque drawl and slopbucket guitar chops of Spencer (ex-Pussy Galore navigator and Gibson Brothers sideman) and steeped in the primal, groove-crazed blues classics of John Lee Hooker, Slim Harpo, and Hound Dog Taylor. Spencer and Explosion guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins filter those grooves through a host of divergent yet aesthetically related influences: the avant-blues experiments of Captain Beefheart; the punk-rock roar of Chain Gang, Crime, and the Pagans; the garage-rock wallop of Chocolate Watch Band, the Standells, and the 13th Floor Elevators; the primordial blue-eyed blues of the Animals, the Rolling Stones, and the Pretty Things; the choogling drive of Southern soul and funk; and the pulsating whammy of hip-hop. These forms are deconstructed, stripped to the bone, then reassembled, with intersecting guitar riffs working on "Boogie Chillun" variations, drums crashing in rhythmic unison, and Spencer's swaggering, cocksure howl turning out anthems of his -- and the Blues Explosion's -- bad-ass prowess.
Now I Got Worry (Matador), the band's sixth album, is a masterful distillation of the Blues Explosion's previous forays into the underbelly of American music, shaped by an arty, postpunk vision of apocalyptic rhythms and pile-driving noise. Although the Explosion's most recent gig -- backing Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside on the Matador release A Ass Pocket of Whiskey -- found the group working within a fairly traditional framework of hypnotic trance-blues, Now I Got Worry is a mangy melange of blues, punk, and Southern-fried soul. While it lacks the cohesion of 1994's Orange or side one of '93's Extra Width, Worry covers more scuzz-rock terrain, and traces the evolution of the band's sound as it has moved from the jagged, fractured noise on the first album to Orange's blatant soul and hip-hop plunderings.
Not ones to overlook the masters, the Blues Explosion pay respects to their elders with a Burnside cameo on the driving "R.L. Got Soul" and a matchup with Memphis soul legend Rufus Thomas (inventor of good-foot creations such as "Walking the Dog," "Do the Funky Chicken," and "[Do the] Push and Pull") for a new dance-floor creation dubbed the "Chicken Dog." But fittingly, it's Spencer who dominates the set (save some scene-stealing "Funky Drummer" flourishes from Simins during "Hot Shot"). Beginning with the ear-piercing scream that kicks off "Skunk," through the white-hot hardcore blast on "Identify" and the bodacious grooves that carry "2Kindsa Love," "Wail," and "Dynamite Lover," Spencer comes on like bad-ass incarnate, the bastard seed of Bo Diddley with an ego to match. On "Can't Stop," a monstrous Stax/Volt burner, he offers an interjection that best defines the awesome attitude he brings to the Blues Explosion: "This is the part of the record where I want everyone to stand up, throw their hands in the air, and kiss my ass, 'cause your girlfriend still loves me."
That may be true, but as Spencer's garage-rock underlings monkey around with the mechanics of his disseminated sound, it's only natural that a few would find their own identity within the noise and chaos. Both the Cheater Slicks and the Chrome Cranks have knocked out good-to-great variations on the Explosion verities (the former with the Spencer-produced Don't Like You; the latter on the remarkable set Love in Exile). The only serious challenge to the Blues Explosion's hierarchy, though, comes from the Oblivians, a Memphis-based trio that uses the Explosion's two-guitar-and-drums setup to come up with a sound that's meaner, tougher, and more abrasive -- rooted more in the three-chord fury of primal Seventies punk than Spencer's art-damaged take on R&B.
Formed a little over three years ago by ex-Compulsive Gamblers Jack Yarber and Greg Cartwright with Wipeout fanzine editor Eric Friedl, the Oblivians have forged a style based on the aesthetic rudiments of trash-rock. Their voluminous output -- seven singles, two EPs, and four albums -- has ably documented the band's pet passions: sex ("Song Inside"), drugs ("Go Pill Popper"), rock and roll ("Clones"), self-loathing ("No Reason to Live"), defiance ("Shut My Mouth"), and the cathartic powers of whooping it up ("Feel Real Good"). They've turned in definitive covers of classics by Lightnin' Hopkins ("Viet Nam War Blues") and the Dave Clark Five ("Anyway You Want It"), and pulled off the impossible task of turning a pair of Eighties-era synth-pop stinkers by Trio ("Ja Ja Ja," "Sunday You Need Love") into raging punk stompers brimming with hostility, anger, and aggression.
Popular Favorites, the band's latest release on Crypt, may be the best thing the Oblivians have ever done. Where their first two longplayers (Soul Food, Sympathy Sessions) were odds-and-sods collections of singles and EPs (the third, Rock 'N' Roll Holiday, was a semi-legit live set), Popular Favorites is a cohesive, unified set culled from two sessions recorded in New York and Memphis. It's a 34-minute slugfest that highlights the band's blues chops (hellfire covers of Brownie McGhee's "Christina" and Benjamin Perry's "Hey Mama, Look at Sis") and showcases their ability to pulverize a riff into fine powder ("Trouble" and "Do the Milkshake," a sorta rewrite of Slim Harpo's "Shake Your Hips"). Like the Blues Explosion, the Oblivians splatter feedback and white noise on their punk-blues raveups -- witness the shrapnel-spraying guitar on "The Leather" -- but the ferocity of the best stuff on Popular Favorites never sounds affected. Where the Blues Explosion's bad-ass profile is both self-conscious and detached, there's a streak of vulnerability and desperation in the Oblivians' best stuff. You hear real pain in Cartwright's wailing laments "Part of Your Plan" and "You Fucked Me Up, You Put Me Down" and the cautionary raver "Bad Man." Even a throwaway laugher like "Guitar Shop Asshole" has a dark flip side: You know Friedl has actually been at a music-store counter, getting shitty looks from some frustrated Eddie Van Halen disciple as he politely requests "one guitar string and your cheapest picks."
Given that the Oblivians hail from Memphis, a place even the city's tourist bureau will tell you is the home of the blues, it's tempting to peg them as the real deal and the Blues Explosion as arty wannabes who flirt with the music like Big Apple skronkers James White flirted with funk back in the No Wave era of the late Seventies. You'd be wrong, though, because both groups approach the music from similarly bent postmodernist perspectives, using the blues as source material just as they consult the vast archives of rockabilly, soul, garage-rock, and punk. Their experiments may be tantamount to heresy to hardcore blues purists, but the fusions of the Oblivians and the Blues Explosion have shot some badly needed new blood into the dry vein of the blues. And it's always a good thing when you piss off the purists.
Addresses: Matador, 676 Broadway, New York, NY 10012; Crypt, 1409 W Magnolia, Burbank,
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