Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – Orange + Experimental Remixes / Acme + Acme Plus [Review] (PRESS, US)

23 August 2010
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - Orange + Experimental Remixes / Acme + Acme Plus [Review] (PRESS, US)
Review of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion Orange + Experimental Remixes and Acme + Acme Plus reissues.

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“1994’s Orange finds the Blues Explosion at the exact moment they left behind the pompadour-and-sideburns Crypt Records trash-can garage-rock universe and sidled their way into the Beastie Boys/Beck/Cibo Matto downtown genre-fucking cosmpolitan party. Beck actually shows up on Orange, literally phoning in a guest verse on “Flavor”, and they toured with the Beasties soon after. It’s easy to hear what those guys liked in the band’s assault. The Blues Explosion were honest, organic experimenters– fusing tons of different styles into their musical assault without compromising their ferocity or making any of it sound forced. These influences are fully internalized, rather than self-consciously stapled on. So we get Isaac Hayes disco strings on the drawn-out “Bellbottoms” intro, feral James Chance-sounding sax squawks on “Ditch”, Meters/Booker T organ grease on “Very Rare”, g-funk keyboard whine on “Greyhound”. But we also get a scuzzed-up, pigfuck-descended rock band working at the absolute peak of its considerable powers. On Orange, everything falls into place like it never had before and never would again. The band’s gnarled, borderline-cartoonish gutbucket roots are proudly on display, and its delirious self-glorifying goes way further than it had before. (As the liner notes of this new reissue point out, Spencer didn’t yell out “Blues Explosion!” too often on Blues Explosion songs pre-Orange. Here, he yells it constantly.) But most of the greatest moments on the album aren’t the go-for-broke blasts of adrenaline; they’re the points where the band pulls back and sticks to the pocket. It’s a bit of a surprise to learn, via the newly fleshed-out liner notes, that the band was in a pretty dysfunctional and drugged-out state at the time they recorded it. Guitarist Judah Bauer floats the theory that he might’ve played behind the beat throughout the album because he was “junk sick.” Instead, on Orange, these three guys sound able to anticipate each other’s moves way ahead of time. The tracks groove hard, and every change feels totally intuitive.

Only a couple of songs on Orange have what could even loosely be considered choruses. Spencer is the unquestioned frontman here, but his vocals are more hypeman exhortation than actual song. A few instrumentals turn up, and all the songs could really work without Spencer’s vocals, fun as it is to hear him whoop out the names of different cities or scream about how much his wife likes to fuck. Even with all the smart, well-placed studio embellishments here, this feels like an excerpted version of a long, on-fire jam session. Spencer and Bauer pile on layer after layer of stomp-riff, while Russell Simins’ drumming is a natural wonder: an absurdly funky push-pull with some of the thundercrack heaviness of John Bonham. Next to the spidery, introverted indie rock of its day, Orange sounded like a revelation– an absurd burst of swagger and libido, as rendered by three total expert musicians. Even Beck sounds a bit taken aback when Spencer starts wailing, “You got the flavor!” at him after he gets done laying his verse. The thing sold 100,000 copies, and yet it didn’t really go on to influence anyone, possibly because nobody else could do it like this.

This new blown-out reissue of Orange comes with a ton of extra material, none of which rivals the original album’s power. In fact, the various outtakes and extra tracks really reinforce how well-sequenced and pared-down the final album actually was. These guys knew when they’d done something special, and they knew when something didn’t quite measure up. So a lot of this extra stuff is fun, but none of it is actually necessary. And some of it is straight-up dogshit; I challenge anyone to make it through the 15-minute found-sound collage “Tour Dairy” even once before skipping past. But the reissue is still worthy of your attention, since it includes the 1995 EP Experimental Remixes, which cashed in on the band’s newfound cachet by getting guys like Mike D and Beck to amp up the dusty breakbeak-funk elements of these tracks. Moby’s take on “Greyhound” is a sleek, streamlined synth-rock thing, an early attempt at the glacial pop majesty he’d find with a song like “Southside” a few years later, while GZA turns the same song into grimy paranoia and offers the world the rare opportunity to hear someone say, “Killah Priest was born in a pillar of yeast, lost in the miscarriage,” on a goddam Blues Explosion song.

Orange is the smoking hole at the center of the Blues Explosion discography. Every album that came after, in one way or another, felt like a reaction to it. Now I Got Worry was the dark hangover after the all-night party, Acme the attempt to push the LP’s experimental side even further, Plastic Fang the retrenchment into pre-Orange garage-rock squall. Orange was a one-producer affair, whereas Acme ropes in an unlikely coalition that includes Steve Albini, Calvin Johnson, and Automator. And even though it succeeds in giving extra dimension to the band’s hip-hop side, it feels like a big step back from the tersely funky force of the two preceding records. It’s a bit of a slapdash mess– a fiery band getting lost in the margins and, to some extent, losing their way.

On nearly half the album, they sound as great as ever. “Magical Colors” is a slow, soul-inflected swell, and it indicates that the band might’ve kept its hot streak going a lot longer if they’d dialed the adrenaline way back on this one and gone for slinky instead. “Do You Wanna Get Heavy?” is a loose, sidelong drunken ramble with an insanely catchy chorus that suddenly turns the song into doo-wop. “I Wanna Make It All Right” is as righteously funky as the band ever got. But the songs don’t build and retract the way they did on Orange and Now I Got Worry. Instead, they smush into each other with no sense of reason or progression. The choice of Automator as a collaborator is pretty interesting, but it’s also a fairly entry-level rap choice for a rock band working at the time. If they’d instead linked up with, say, Pete Rock or Organized Noize, we could be looking at an absolute classic here. Meanwhile, much of the Calvin Johnson material was recorded for the stopgap side-project record Dub Narcotic Sound System Meets the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in a Dancehall Style!, and much of it should’ve stayed there. And sometimes, we get that distracting barrage of new directions within the songs themselves. The album-closing “Attack”, for instance, finds the band at the three-way intersection of Albini, Automator, and Atari Teeage Riot’s Alec Empire, and it’s exactly the flaming car wreck you’d expect.

Since Acme is so scattered and unfocused, the expanded 2xCD reissue doesn’t dip in quality once the original album ends, as the Orange set does. So here we get two CDs’ worth of a great band in decent but frustratingly scattershot form– not bad, then, but no place to start.”

— Tom Breihan, October 26, 2010 “