Monday, March 2, 2009

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Extra Width (Matador, 1993)

"Stupid child/ Why do you lie?/ I'm gonna treat you/ Treat you/ Like a stepchild!"

In 2009, Jon Spencer has basically outstayed his welcome. His latest records unfortunately find him slipping into the realm of self-parody, and Spencer seems to have bought into his own hype by developing into a sort of indie hipster hype man and proto-blooze belter. Is he joking around, subverting society's conception of the blues and rock and punk, or is he serious? Or does it matter at all at this point? Is anyone still even listening?

But it wasn't always like this. When Spencer first crawled onto the scene in the mid '80s as part of the aggressively vulgar NYC-via-DC brat-punks Pussy Galore (featuring future Royal Trux disaster Neil Hagerty, one time Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert, and Spencer's soon-to-be bride -- and general indie rock knockout -- Cristina Martinez) he was a breath of fresh hot air, hugely charismatic, brashly confident, and wildly exciting, dishing out deformed r'n'b riffs and blasts of searing noise. It was grating and enthralling, an unholy racket you could shake yr ass to.

After Pussy Galore split, Spencer recruited the mammoth rhythm section of Russel Simins (drums) and Judah Bauer (bass) to back up his six-string lunacy, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (JSBX) emerged from their cocoon guns a-blazin', cribbing joyously from psychopunk forerunners like the Cramps, the Misfits, and even X. Basically, from their self-titled debut in 1992 to 1996's Now I Got Worry, there were few acts raising as much indie rock hell as these dudes, constantly taking the piss out of blues and punk while remaining faithful to the fundamentals of both. Spencer himself would constantly exclaim, "This is not the blues! This is ROCK AND ROLL!" apparently content to, well, explode conceptions of a venerated American art form for his own purposes and amusement.

And from '92 to '96, he sounded great doing it. This period's albums, but especially '93's Extra Width and '94's slightly more polished Orange (both on Matador, for whom JSBX were, incidentally, one of that label's biggest earners throughout the Clinton era), are classic collections of syncopated, swaggering, distorted rock'n'soul, greasy and filthy and foul mouthed and hilarious. They still stand up as bad-mannered testaments to an indie rock golden era, though Extra Width remains a purer, much more raw example of JSBX's rough and rugged talents.

From the first strains of Extra Width's massive opener "Afro," JSBX are locked in and full on. Afro is a monster, riding an undeniable central riff -- carried through on guitar, bass, and too-dirty-for-church organs -- over Simins' s behemoth beats. At the 1:54 mark, Spencer shouts "Damn!" and unleashes a squalling, squealing sheet of guitar madness. The loping menace of "History of Lies" revels in a pulsing sexuality and ill intent, while Soul Typecast is a stone genius rave-up, Spencer carving and sculpting white noise and ragged riffs into dance floor platinum, leaning on Simins and Bauer to do the heavy lifting they do so well.

Elsewhere, "The World of Sex" is a steady pounding night train of a jam, and Big Road relentlessly chews the scenery as Spencer attacks his axe without mercy, screaming about Roy Roger's roast beef sandwiches and listing off the names of NJ Turnpike rest stops -- Thomas Edison, Joyce Kilmer, Vince Lombardi, et. al. -- with a maniacal fervor bordering on hysteria. It's impossible not to get caught up in the evil spirit of things, screaming and growling along, your limbs moving helplessly to the future primitive rhythms.

One of my prized possessions is a Now I Got Worry poster signed by all three JSBX members, a reminder of a time in which Spencer, Simins, and Bauer comprised one of my favorite bands. Having seen them in their mid '90s prime, I still remember JSBX as a scorching live show, and listening to Extra Width today I'm vividly reminded why I used to care about them so much. Extra Width holds up as a harsh, pummeling album that never forgets to have a good time or keep things catchy. To hear it is to hear a band at the height of its powers, full of good ideas and the chops to pull them off.