The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – Now I Got Worry / Controversial Negro [REVIEWS] (PRESS, US)

21 May 2010

Review of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion albums Now I Got Worry and Controversial Negro reissues from Pitchfork.

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Given the congenial pose he strikes with his current rockabilly outfit Heavy Trash, it’s hard to remember a time when Jon Spencer was the most polarizing figure in American indie-rock. Sure, Vampire Weekend may catch message-board flak over the socio-economic disparities between their privileged upbringings and the impoverished African musicians who’ve inspired them, but they’ve never been labeled a minstrel act or, worse, racist– tags that dogged Spencer and his band, the Blues Explosion, through their mid-1990s heyday. Really, Spencer adopted black musical tropes and affectations– be it the hysterical hoots and hollers of Little Richard or the self-referential shout-outs of Flavor Flav– no more flagrantly than Elvis or Mick Jagger or Captain Beefheart before him. But amid the time’s otherwise sexless indie-rock culture, Spencer’s speed-freak lover-man act made him a godsend to some and an easy target to others.

Compared to the recently released compilation Dirty Shirt Rock ‘n’ Roll– which emphasized the more accessible, funkier tracks in the JSBX discography– these two reissues plant us firmly back in the eye of the storm circa 1996, the year the New York trio’s notoriety was at an all-time high. From its nervous title on down to its queasy, claustrophobic production, the band’s fourth album, Now I Got Worry, sees the Blues Explosion aggressively reacting to both critical attacks and increased commercial expectations. Not only was it the follow-up to 1994’s underground breakthrough Orange, it was also the first JSBX release to benefit from the wider distribution afforded by Matador’s (short-lived) partnership with Capitol Records. But the closest thing to a sell-out move here was getting “Weird” Al Yankovic to direct the video for lead single “Wail”; Now I Got Worry begins with a tortured scream (on the opening declaration of ostracization “Skunk”) and ends face down in the dub sewage of “Sticky”, with hardcore blitzkriegs (“Identify”) and profane Dub Narcotic covers (“Fuck Shit Up”) in between.

But what’s most remarkable about Now I Got Worry is that the Blues Explosion’s grimiest record was also their most sonically ambitious. Recorded in the wake of the band’s 1996 collaboration with R.L. Burnside (A Ass Pocket of Whiskey), Now I Got Worry sees the trio adapting to the bluesman’s brand of hypnotic, in-the-pocket electric blues, but filtering it through the cut-and-paste funk aesthetic favored by contemporaries like Beck, the Beastie Boys, and Cibo Matto. Spencer, of course, had been flirting with hip-hop since his Pussy Galore days, but here the abrupt breakbeat edits and dubby textures feel less like tentative dabbles and more like strategic devices used to better convey the songs’ anxious energy. In that sense, the Blues Explosion became a more pure blues band the more artfully they reconstructed that idea. (The 12 outtakes included here– not including the four bonus radio-promo ads– reveal the extent of experimentation the band underwent to achieve Worry’s near-perfect blues/beats /punk/dub synthesis, from the chilled-out slide-guitar groove of “Cool Vee” to the brown-note funk of “Buscemi” to the kamikaze garage-rock of “Dig My Shit”.)

If Now I Got Worry is an expression of the Blues Explosion’s agony, then the flagrantly titled Controversial Negro captures the ecstasy, showcasing them in the one environment where they never had to worry about anything: on stage. The album, recorded at Tucson’s Hotel Congress shortly after Worry’s release, was first released officially in Japan and as a limited-edition promo item in the U.S. Not only does this reissue finally grant easy access to a thrilling, peak-era performance from one of best live bands of its time, it tacks on the show’s previously unreleased six-song encore plus another nine songs from a ’94-era gig at Tucson’s DPC.

Barring the fadeout between sets, you’d be hard-pressed to tell you were hearing two different shows: for all the evolutionary strides the band had made in the studio between 1994-96, the Blues Explosion remained a raw and relentless force onstage. In this context, the Worry track “Can’t Stop” is less a hot-headed boast of sexual stamina than a literal description of the band’s ability to charge through an hour-long show with nary a pause, abruptly shifting into or rearranging songs on the fly like they were making a mix tape of themselves in real time. Even when Spencer gets a moment to catch his breath on the extended breakdown of “Blues X Man”, he takes the opportunity to reiterate what his band is all about– “I’m talking about fucking! Eating pussy! Makin’ love! Sucking cock!”– while the breathless encore run from “Bellbottoms” through to “Full Grown” brings all that dirty talk to a delirious climax. Guitarist Judah Bauer once said that the Blues Explosion expend more energy in a single show than most people do in a 40-hour work week; on Controversial Negro, they log more than enough overtime to start collecting their 401ks 30 years early.

The Blues Explosion were never really the same after their 1996 tear– 1998’s Acme delved deeper into beat science at the expense of ferocity, while 2002’s Plastic Fang went too far the other way, presenting the Blues Explosion as a conventional, Stonesy rock’n’roll outfit that paled next to new schoolers like the White Stripes and the Hives. And in today’s indie-rock landscape of blissed-out Animal Collectivists and downcast Nationals, the Blues Explosion are arguably more out of time and place than they were back in the mid-90s. But where the value of reissues is generally gauged by how well the old recordings fit into the current musical climate, the fact that Now I Got Worry and Controversial Negro still sound like little else out there now only makes them feel all the more necessary.

— Stuart Berman, May 21, 2010