|23 August 2010||Pitchfork.com||–|
|Review of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion Year One and Extra Width/Mo’ Width reissues.
See the review at Pitchfork.com.
“In 1992, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion inked a deal with Caroline Records and requested a very specific signing bonus– the then-new 10xCD Jerry Lee Lewis box set. Two years later, when the band jumped ship to Matador, they asked for the 9xCD Stax-Volt Complete Singles 1959-1968. As band lore has it, Caroline never sprang for the set, and the Blues Explosion’s tenure there was short-lived and acrimonious. Matador, on the other hand, made good with Stax, and the band enjoyed a decade-long partnership with the label. Business relations aside, these two signing requests neatly signal the musical differences between the band’s first few releases as well as between the latest installments in this ongoing reissue series. Year One, which collects on one disc the band’s first three releases– all from 1991 and ’92, hence the title– is the Blues Explosion at their most explosive, thundering through nearly 40 tracks with the devil-may-care insouciance of the Killer in his prime. They even cover Lewis’ “Lovin’ Up a Storm” and roll in a few measures of “Great Balls of Fire”.
Year One is the noisiest, most abrasive, and most alienating collection the Blues Explosion has released, for better or for worse. The energy is there. So are the smarts. So is the general concept. But the band is still in its infancy, so its still figuring out how to translate those three primary qualities into music. Spencer hollers and howls like a Tex Avery cartoon, while Russell Simins bludgeons his drums and Judah Bauer punishes his guitar, and together they generate a volatility that’s recognizably JSBX. Yet, songs like “Comeback” and “Maynard Ave.” fidget uncomfortably and never really get moving. In general, they sound unfocused and undisciplined, which means that at 38 tracks, Year One can be a long, hard album to take in.
Still, there are so many moments when everything falls into place, when the band sounds all the more boisterous and uncontrollable– all the more revelatory 19 years later– for being so ragged and rough. Especially as Year One moves into the material the band recorded with Steve Albini, the music gets messier, more aggressive, more reckless: They light up “History of Sex” like Lewis setting fire to a piano, while “40 Lb Block of Cheese” shows the band at its most genially wacky. Best of all may be “Mo’ Chicken-Let’s Get Funky”, which lives up to its title as soon as Simins comes in at double time. They speed through the Hound Dog Taylor cover just a little more rapidly than necessary, as if they can barely keep the song under control.
To say that Extra Width and its partner Mo’ Width sound sleeker and more sophisticated is actually to say very little with that point of comparison. Still, considering it was recorded less than a year after the releases that comprise Year One, these two long-players show just how far the band had come in a short time, thanks to a triumphant tour opening for the Jesus Lizard (“Fuck yeah, that was a hard act to follow,” David Yow testifies in the liner notes). But they haven’t lost that excitability: If the Blues Explosion thrives on viscera and hyperbole, Extra Width may be the most visceral and hyperbolic they’ve ever sounded. It is, in other words, quintessential JSBX.
About that signing bonus: The band recorded both Extra and Mo’ Width at Easley Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, home not only to Sun Studio but also to Stax Records. But Sun was a tourist trap; Stax was still just a legend, the building having been demolished a decade prior. These songs are slightly less punk and slightly more funk– a bit more refined but still jagged around the edges. They’ve obviously learned a lot from Booker T. & the MGs, and that’s not just the organ on “Soul Typecast”. Bauer’s guitar possesses a newfound compactness and eloquence reminiscent of Steve Cropper, and Simins lays down beats that nod rhythmically to one of the greatest soul drummers, Al Jackson, Jr. Like Stax and the best soul, the band focus less on songs than on moments within songs– the stop-start intensity of “Inside the World of the Blues Explosion”, Spencer’s indecipherable delivery on “Afro”, the back-and-forth with Bauer on “History of Lies”.
What these two reissues demonstrate, perhaps more than any other pair in this excellent series, is just how wide a net the Blues Explosion cast. Name aside, they weren’t fascinated by the blues solely, but were equally enamored with and even moved by soul, funk, early rock, rockabilly, even jazz, all of which they filtered through a late-80s indie aesthetic. Nowhere is that diversity more apparent than the 24-track bonus disc that accompanies Extra and Mo’ Width. It begins with what sounds like a rewrite of the “Peter Gunn Theme” and ends 23 tracks later with Spencer doing his best coked-up Elvis on a live version of “The World of Sex”. In between Spencer unleashes his gutter falsetto and of course that sci-fi theremin, and the band plow through salty surf rock, Texas boogie rock, tongue-in-cheek schmaltz, some moldering holiday chestnuts, and what sounds like the most mutant strain of hardcore imaginable. Compiled by Spencer himself, this expertly curated set reveals the band’s great affection for these sounds and styles, not to mention for their purveyors. The great misunderstanding in the early 90s– one that survives today– is that somehow the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion were making fun of their influences, but really they were trying to rescue them from being whitewashed by too many reverent critics and too many museum-worthy box sets.
— Stephen M. Deusner, August 23, 2010 ”