White Riot

Having a producer or four helps a lot on the new Jon Spencer Blues Explosion record, Acme. Although no single person is credited as a producer, there are no fewer than ten people listed as "mixers" of individual songs, and there are six different studios listed as recording sites for the Blues Explosion's fourth longplayer for Matador. The one common thread here is Steve Albini, who shows up on nearly every track with a "recorded by" credit. Producer/guitarist Albini has performed Svengali-like services for acts such as Nirvana and PJ Harvey, changing those artists' basic live sounds into something radically different and commercial. Albini may not be the sole reason for the interesting sounds throughout Acme, but he probably had a lot to do with helping the Blues Explosion make its first successful and enjoyable recording.

I've rarely been a fan of Jon Spencer's recorded work in the past. From Pussy Galore to the Blues Explosion, I have made an effort to like Spencer's records. I've enjoyed the interviews, the rhetoric, the overt mixing of race and sex themes, the idea of Jon Spencer and whatever pose he's trying on at the moment. It all looks good on paper, but the recorded reality has fallen flat on these ears, sounding like a pale, white-boy imitation of much more primal stuff.

I should probably confess right here that I have had some personal contact with Spencer. I recorded a song or two with him in 1991 for a Gibson Brothers record, and even had lunch with him. He's a very nice and personable man with no huge ego for someone who looks so damn good. He is honest and forthright about his musical influences, citing artists like R.L. Burnside (with whom he has recorded and toured), the late Junior Kimbrough, Othar Turner (who makes an appearance on Acme), the Cramps, the Gun Club, and the Panther Burns. Another confession: Off and on for close to twenty years, I have played drums with the Panther Burns, a group that has also fallen prey to being a pale imitation of musical betters more times than I care to count. Spencer has graciously namechecked the Burns at a time in the band's (non)career when we have about as much commercial appeal as another Robbie Robertson solo album. So I have tried to like his previous recordings. But I can't. They make me cringe. And it takes a lot to make me cringe.

On previous efforts such as Extra Width, Orange, and Now I Got Worry, Spencer and his band essentially did the same record over and over. There's nothing wrong with that in rock and roll if the record that's being repeated is a good one. But that didn't seem to be the case with the three releases mentioned. The usual formula for JSBX recordings has been caterwauling guitars, basic funk drumming, and lots and lots of Spencer's mannered yowling and howling. If you've never heard his voice before it might be hard to imagine a more soulless white yelp. Spencer makes Tav Falco of the Panther Burns sound like Caruso with his guttural shouts of "blues power" and pseudo-James Brown "uhs" and "yeahs." Spencer has displayed a strong sense of humor on his recordings, from the mid-Eighties guitar grind of Pussy Galore up through the Blues Explosion, but his vocals often go beyond parody all the way to downright painful and unlistenable. Maybe that's the point: trying to sing with soul and feeling, and failing miserably. Sounding that bad must be intentional; otherwise Spencer is more actively untalented than anyone dared to imagine.

Actually the instrumental side of the group has always been its greatest strength. Guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins have turned in some razor-sharp performances on all Blues Explosion recordings. I've often wished that Matador would release instrumental versions of JSBX records because the band can play, and Spencer's voice usually ruins things. Maybe I just can't hear his vocal "talent," since I have put in so many years playing with a vocalist who has been accused of the same excesses: tunelessness, no sense of time or tempo, zero expressive phrasing. In live performance Spencer turns his voice into just another instrument, whooping and wheezing into the microphone to achieve a distorted effect very similar to what Lux Interior of the Cramps has been doing for years. Live, Spencer's voice is simply another noisy, overcharged element of the band's sound. However on records his vocals stick out all too plainly and there is no disguising their limitations. Maybe that's also the point: to accentuate the most irritating feature until it becomes the defining sound and signature of the band's presentation. You either hate it or love it. It is a time-worn ethos left over from hardcore and punk, Spencer's real roots, of course.

Spencer may also have learned a lot from his brief tenure with Columbus, Ohio's Gibson Brothers, with whom he recorded and toured from 1989 to 1991, playing on their 1991 record, The Man Who Loved Couch Dancing (Homestead), and 1993's Memphis Sol Today! (Sympathy for the Record Industry). The Gibson Brothers' Jeffrey Evans and Don Howland were ahead of their time (and any potential market, it seems) with their mixture of raw atonal blues and hip-hop samples. You don't have to listen too closely to figure out where Spencer might have gotten the template for the Blues Explosion if you've heard any of the Gibson Brothers' records. Evans and Howland have continued toiling on indie labels to the present day, Evans with '68 Comeback and Howland with the Bassholes, with little commercial success or prominence. You can't blame Spencer for taking a great idea and turning it into a meal ticket when neither Evans nor Howland was able to do so. Jon Spencer is pretty and sexy in a way that the Gibson Brothers never were. They may have done it first, but Jon made it appealing to a younger audience with his looks and image, also a time-honored rock and roll practice. If you can't do it better, then do it cuter. And the Blues Explosion does just that.

Enough of sour grapes and setting the record straight. So how did he manage to make an exciting, listenable record this time out? Sort-of producer Albini makes a difference, as do the various samples and scratches by Dan the Automator. A number of the samples sound suspiciously like some of those used on DJ Shadow's Endtroducing, a very influential 1996 recording made up entirely of sampled material itself. There are plenty of unashamed lifts from hip-hop, funk, and blues, but then the Blues Explosion has always been about hip white guys borrowing (some might say "stealing") black music. However, Spencer and his band members have never disguised that theft in a standard, white rock and roll manner. When they take from black culture they do it in such an overt, over-the-top way there is no disguising it. This doesn't license or excuse the practice; it just makes it easier to recognize.

What actually seems to have happened on Acme is that the Blues Explosion, Spencer's singing in particular, has improved. It seems as if after six years the execution has finally caught up with the concept. Terrible bands make good records now and then, and great bands sometimes make awful records. This seems to be JSBX's turn to make a great one. At times the group sounds like an R & B-charged version of the Stooges, a version that can knock down doors and groove at the same time. Come to think of it, the original Stooges were great at bludgeoning things but had problems grooving. Somehow Spencer and company have found a way to channel their sound and also make it dance. By modeling his vocals more after the Stooges' Iggy Pop than James Brown, Spencer has finally gotten funky. At other times he seems to be imitating Mick Jagger. But the interesting thing is, the whiter his influences get, the funkier Spencer sounds. Of course by stealing from Pop or Jagger, he's aping white guys who are trying to sound black but don't (or can't). Same old rock and roll racial conundrum, but Jon Spencer invigorates and enlivens it here expertly. He's always looked good. Now he sounds good.


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