Out & About

Prevailing rockcrit wisdom posits Jon Spencer as rock's pre-eminent postmodernist. Sure, he's not as neon as Beck nor as conniving as Madonna, but he also doesn't constantly evolve as visibly as either the whore or the mother and, ergo, is not as susceptible to the cataclysmic shifts of pop cult's mood orbits. It's a claim that makes the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion--his highly volatile band with guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins--a contentious act in critical circles. This love-it-or-loathe-it trio is as likely to crib its beats and rhythms from hip-hop and drum 'n' bass as much as the blues proper, making the name as passive-aggressive qua tongue-in-cheek as Spencer's first, more obvious outfit, Pussy Galore, only with less interest in easy vulgarity. Still, a quick glance through the whole JSBX package--the albums, the jukebox-series seven-inch singles, the bombastic live shows--can be misread as a lesson in style over substance: This white boy plays that funky music as though he invented it, callously confident in the cognizance that everybody knows he didn't.

But there's a bit more than mere rock pyrotechnics going on in JSBX. When Spencer dropped out of college and moved to Washington, D.C., to start Pussy Galore with Julie Cafritz in 1985, he may have been an undergraduate at Brown University, but his musical education was all black and blue. PG made rock a wild, ugly compost and fertilized it in a frothy ebullience for gutter-punk high life. It was a throwback to 1960s garage acts that were fueled by British bands weaned on the blues of black America. These lovely scum rockers simply dipped into the ribald, primitive themes of early blues--filtered through a raunch factor that spit it out as "Constant Pain," "Die Bitch," and "White People"--and paired it with the ear-bleeding racket made by a group of skinny, suburbanites who barely knew how to play. The songs' substance, however, remained the same: Life sucks; women--can't live with 'em, can't shoot 'em (without hell to pay for it, that is); and death's just around the corner.

Though this art-rock assault on bourgeois values was little more than the skeleton of the blues dressed in thrift-store chic, it rediscovered the primal scene of rock's birth. Spencer's next outing, Boss Hog, nursed that into a full-grown R&B organism. Led by vocalist and Spencer spouse Cristina Martinez, Boss Hog took PG's infatuation with pain and pampered it into a pleasure principle. The backbone was still a blues boogie, but musical proficiency permitted a degree of sophistication that, when tightly wound, beat a pelvic pulse, and Hog's highs became conjugal visits that recall the bruising beauty of Ike and Tina turning love life inside out.

When the JSBX formed in 1991, the trio allowed its music to hold a mirror up to itself and admire what it saw. Somewhere along the way, Spencer realized that although rock has always worn narcissism well, it has never unchained self-adoration to run amok. Spencer, Bauer, and Simmons just let all the well-worn clichés compete in a survival of the fittest where only the most over-the-top would survive. They bottled this explosion and debuted it in 1992 with three faces: Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Crypt Style, and the bootleg A Reverse Willie Horton. Each was a different version of the same thing. The self-titled album introduced the band, Crypt Style sleazed into cherry-red lipstick, and the bootleg transcends such terrestrial concerns to radiate pure energy: Horton sounds like it couldn't give a hoot about fidelity, high or marital, and it buzzes and howls like a liberated woman. What followed was a series of metaphysical graffiti that didn't so much reinvent rock genres as encourage them to believe their own inflated sense of self-importance. Extra Width rode Stax to stellar regions, Orange mainlined 1970s funk-rock decadence, Now I Got Worry went out to the woodshed for some gritty home cooking, and Acme threw an old-fashioned dance party for the digital age.

Admittedly, you can trace a purely musical journey from PG to JSBX, but Spencer's sound has always been intimately tied to its persona. In that respect, you can argue that Spencer's career has charted rock's Freudian development: PG is its rambunctious id, Boss Hog the mature ego, and JSBX a vanity of confluence that couldn't be more superego if Friedrich Nietzche and Stanley Kubrick sang backup. Granted, it's hard to stomach any music that requires being sautéed in a bitter sauce of literary criticism just to give it more flavor, but for those of us who like to have our groove thing and think about it, too, such musings wrap some chewable fat around the JSBX's otherwise scrawny carnality. Purists probably won't sit still for the JSBX's marriage of rap braggadocio to rock vanity, or a band whose favorite refrain is an unironic gasp of "Blues Explosion," so no amount of intellectual dressing is going to make the spoonfuls of swagger go down. Even so, it'd be a shame if rock-and-roll fans didn't give Spencer a chance, because his band's throbbing sound invites you to get up to get down, stop worrying, and love the self-obsessed and sexy. The Blues Explosion's sarcasm wrapped in a riddle hidden in an attitude and dressed as a Gap ad may be no replacement for the genuine article (see North Mississippi Allstars), but sometimes that wallop of sass will do just fine.

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Bret Mccabe