The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – Dirty Shirt Rock ‘N’ Roll: The First Ten Years [Reviews] (PRESS, US)

21 May 2010
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - Dirty Shirt Rock 'N' Roll: The First Ten Years [Reviews] (PRESS, US)
Review of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion compilation Dirty Shirt Rock ‘n’ Roll: The First Ten Years from Pitchfork.

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Led by a refugee from the D.C. punk scene who rejected Dischord for its austerity and embraced the blues for its theatricality, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion found a way to mix musical styles into a potent cocktail. The band’s basic riff is simple: Drummer Russell Simins pounds out brutal rhythms, guitarist Judah Bauer pummels repeated riffs mercilessly, and Spencer channels a frenzied mix of Elvis, Little Richard, and Ross Johnson. With no regard for the previous generation’s interpretation of the blues– Spencer is a living affront to Eric Clapton– the Blues Explosion take everything tasteless and dangerous and ugly and irredeemable in rock and run with it. Their music is highly crafted and gloriously messy, heavily conceptual but still visceral, serious while also being funny. Nearly two decades after their formation, their music has outlived its superficial provocations and hits with a force that is perhaps even greater now than it was the first time around.

Dirty Shirt Rock ‘n’ Roll surveys the years between their 1992 debut and 2002’s Plastic Fang. Unlike the consistently name-checked and beloved Pavement, another Matador band with a new retrospective in stores, the Blues Explosion seem ripe for re-evaluation. The early-2000s garage rock revival and the success of the White Stripes have given us a new context to hear these disarrayed blues-rock excursions, which similarly peel back the layers to get to rock’s core elements.

In the 1990s, however, when Spencer was a contemporary of Steve Malkmus, Robert Pollard, and Mac MacCaughan, this music sounded so far removed from any particular scene that the band could be easily dismissed as an anomaly. In retrospect, Spencer’s real peers may have been the Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli and Beck, artists who had very specific ideas about how to transform African-American music traditions into a personal style that made sense to the alt-rock nation. Unlike either of them, Spencer borrowed almost exclusively from pre-Beatles sources: blaring mid-century blues riffs, outlandish vocals from some fever dream of the 50s, and no truck with niceties like song structure. Tracks like “Chicken Dog” (a great duet with the late Rufus Thomas) and the slithery “Afro” meander aggressively, as if demanding and daring you to keep up. “Bellbottoms”, one of JSBX’s better-known singles, doesn’t even get started until nearly two minutes in, by which time the band has been hammering away next to a string arrangement by Lalo Schifrin. The song screeches to a halt and peels out again in the direction of a terrifically catchy call-and-response chant. How do the two halves connect? These guys could care less.

As the decade wore on, the Blues Explosion began tinkering with their fairly austere sound, which lead to collaborations with Dan the Automator and Alec Empire. If at the time they seemed to have lost the thread, Dirty Shirt Rock ‘n’ Roll argues that they still held firm to their core values. Moving back and forth in time, with no regard whatsoever for intelligible chronology, the comp holds together remarkably well, like a good live setlist or a friend’s mixtape. Guests from Beck to hard-living R&B legend Andre Williams sit naturally with the Blues Explosion’s sparer guitar-drums-Theremin breakdowns, suggesting that for all their reliance on decades-old styles and gestures, these gloriously messy songs live in the present. Whatever you or Spencer or anyone else calls it, this music is just as exciting and alienating now as it was then.

— Stephen M. Deusner, March 24, 2010