Are you ready for the blues? I’m not talking about some whiny Johnny Lang or Bonnie Raitt playing the standardized slowhand blues to the same old lyrics of love and despair. I am here today to tell you about the futuristic blues of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (JSBX). Take Robert Johnson, add a little SLF spice and a twist of James Brown and you have the skunk-drunk, running-around-half-naked-howling-at-the-moon-vibe of JSBX.
To those familiar with the musical stylings of Jon Spencer (vocals, guitar), Judah Bauer (guitar) and Russell Simmons (drums), their latest release, ACME, is a more sedate series of songs from the frenetic, electrifying trio. Like their cohorts and occasional collaborators, Beck and Luscious Jackson, JSBX continues to explore new musical territory. This is a group not afraid of throwing blues grooves, punk tempos and dance rhythms into one bag. As ACME proves, it is impossible to label this band and pigeon-hole them into one category.
“Calvin” launches ACME with a traditional blues-guitar riff with a funky twist. Imagine cruising through the hot and humid streets of downtown Memphis, Tennessee in a pea-green 1976 Chevy Impala with Booker T and the MGs blasting on the AM radio and you got the spirit of this tune. You can almost feel the shirt sticking to your back and smell the hot tar of the streets and the smoke from the roadside barbecue stands. Without a doubt, this tune is an excellent intro for the rest of the album.
The second tune, “Magical Colors,” glides by on the smooth guitar work of Mr. Judah Bauer. It shows the boys can slow it down, but still keep the explosive energy vibe going. “Do you Wanna Get Heavy?” Jon Spencer asks in the next song, and the answer is “Hell, Yes,” especially with the r & b vibe of the tune. The back-up singers on this slithery tune are reminiscent of the Commodores. “High Gear” shifts the mood into overdrive with a catchy little tune about truckin’ and good ol’ St. Nick that rolls on down the fast lane. It is a personal favorite of mine (ok, a bit more subjective than your typical Rolling Stone or NME review, but hey, deal with it).
The middle section of ACME showcases JSBX. “Talking about the Blues” is the first single from ACME and an excellent introduction to the uninitiated. Jon Spencer delivers a sarcastic sermon to the rock music community, with Russell Simmon’s drumming punctuating the message over the funky, techno-driven melody. “I Wanna Make it All Right” gets gritty and low, with its lyrical shouts of despair. Agony and ecstasy clash and it sounds good. Moving on, JSBX explodes into the foot-stompin’, hip-swiveling “Lovin’ Machine.” Guaranteed to get everyone up and dancin’ at a party, with its funky beat and jiving guitar. “Bernie” is a delightfully loud tune, highlighted by the incredible vocals of Jon Spencer’s wife, Christina Martinez (check out Boss Hog). “Blue-Green Olga” was co-written with Luscious Jackson’s Jill Cunniff and features her background vocals. It is a departure from the traditional grind of JSBX, but radio-friendly and a fun tune.
The last four songs slip by on JSBX. The chorus of “Give Me a Chance” will stick in your head, while “Desperate” and “Torture” serve as melodic backgrounds for late night discussions after spending too much time at the bar. Just when you think ACME is wrapping up on a mellow note, the bone-crushing assault of “Attack” catches you off-guard. A final celebration of JSBX, complete with Judah Bauer’s furious guitar-crushing, Russell Simmon’s aggressive skin attack and Jon Spencer’s patented Demon-Child-of-Elvis vocals. An excellent conclusion to ACME.
Some of the traditional JSBX fans have voiced complaints that ACME is too commercial, but I disagree. While their 1994 release “Orange” remains my personal favorite, ACME is still a rocking roller-coaster ride of amped-up Blues. I’ll be the first to stand up and say “DANG!”
PS You can check out info on JSBX, including sound and video clips at the following sites:
MATADOR RECORDS: http://www.matador.recs.com/bios/bio_jsbx.html
Review Kristen Wenzel – New Mexico USA