After almost exactly eight years without a studio album, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion returns to the racks with Meat and Bone. It lacks the often outlandish stylistic extremes of their most celebrated work, instead striving to stir up the power trio punk blooze that’s always been the guts of their thing. But if the record holds enough gusto to surpass their previous two studio efforts, it’s ultimately hindered by possible inhibitions over just how to reenter the musical fray.
Throughout their impressive ‘90s run, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion was an entity that consciously courted the ridiculous. If their early material, namely the bootleg debut A Reverse Willie Horton, the legit self-titled LP on Caroline, Tim Warren’s Crypt label-issued Crypt-Style! and the first Matador LP Extra Width were perhaps more direct (or maybe more appropriately less audacious) blasts of this hulking trio’s unsubtle specialty, then those establishing documents were still rather flagrant in how they flaunted the sheer nerve of their endeavor.
That is to say, just who was this antagonistic art-punk that was daring to engage with a musical history (the blues obviously, but also prime-grade ‘60s R&B and super-greasy ‘70s funk jams) predicated upon a palpable authenticity that this Brown University dropout definitely didn’t possess? It was a common refrain, though the statement was rarely that wordy. Indeed, early JSBX threw any gestures to purity out the window; in fact, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to describe Spencer, bassist Judah Bauer, and drummer Russell Simins as a racket-inducing underground rock update on that bane of early rock critics, Led Zeppelin.
But anybody familiar with Spencer from his previous outfit Pussy Galore surely understood that he was disinterested in merely approximating someone else’s precedent, and anyone who’d experienced that calculatedly provocative group’s cover of German industrialists Einstürzende Neubauten’s “Yü-Gung” (replete with samples of Public Enemy and Rob Base and ending with a ramshackle noise-rock reading of ‘70s Blaxploitation funk) absorbed that Spencer was far more than just another u-ground provocateur. No, he was swinging for the big leagues.
And beginning with ‘94’s Orange and ending with ‘98’s Acme, the band entered their most fruitful and surely most divisive phase. If Orange folded disco strings, skronking free-jazz sax, overwrought mouth harp, fluttering B-sci-fi flick Theremin, early Beck at his most sleepy sounding, a drum line shiftily lifted from Grand Funk Railroad and even a closing gesture to contemporaneous West Coast G-funk, then Acme was indeed the apex of Spencer and company’s attempt to synthesize with their era’s hip-hip cutting-edge (in a manner first examined on ‘95’s surprisingly successful Experimental Remixes EP) with the goal of achieving a self-aggrandizing urban cool.
Some detractors, particularly those favorable to Spencer’s previous work (even in the JSBX), berated the leader as an arrogant charlatan and in a few cases as a modern day minstrel replacing blackface with hipster knowledge and the right associates. I happen to love Orange and tend to think Acme drove home the point of the Blues Explosion’s up to that moment charmed existence a little to emphatically (while still rocking up a storm), but there was also no doubt that at a specific time and in a certain frame of mind (in the morning while sober, say) the JSBX deliberately teetered on the brink of an absurdist chutzpah that could feel rather awkward.
But there was also 1996’s Now I Got Worry to contend with. That was the gasp of fresh air, the re-think betwixt Orange and Acme. Instead of hip-hop re-mixers or disheveled slacker-folk troubadours, the celebrity guest was none other than Memphis legend Rufus Thomas. In the ears of many, Now I Got Worry is the best Blues Explosion release, mainly because it packed the largest wallop while limiting those moments that unflinchingly courted embarrassment.
And it seems Now I Got Worry is the record the group has pin-pointed as the rough model for Meat and Bone, their return to active duty after a very long studio layoff. If choosing that classic LP is a smart maneuver, it also reveals a band hesitant to come out blazing with the brassy stylistic strut that defined much of their most popular past work, though it could also just signify that the current hip-hop scene doesn’t know Jon Spencer from Spencer Tracy. This hesitancy almost seems acknowledged by the band in Meat & Bone’s first third, where the songs touch upon just enough of the group’s quite varied prior material to help this record escape from registering as an overbearingly conservative gesture.
If opener “Black Mold”’s bout of stereo separation actually recalls the found-sound sampling tactic employed by Spencer in the later work of Pussy Galore, specifically on Dial M (there it was a post-industrial nod; here it finds the front-man namedropping Little Walter, Ornette Coleman, and…Milton Babbitt. Did I mention Spencer went to Brown U?), the best cut of Meat and Bone’s first stanza is the Orange-esque “Get Your Pants Off,” where they close in on nailing the hard-funk groove so prevalent in JSBX’s mid-period, with the leader indulging in just a touch of the sex-talk swagger that helped him to cozy up to a classic character like Andre Williams.
But if the record’s remaining eight tracks generally fall into the pattern of rather direct rocking that’s traceable back to that aforementioned ’96 slab, the songs sadly don’t add up to the sum that made that LP such an absolute barnburner. The difference seems to be one of intent. Now I Got Worry, if less over the top than the albums that bookend it, was also a savvy bit of business, being one step back between two huge strides forward, a bold throat punch from a group that stood considerably apart from their indie rock contemporaries.
Instead, Meat and Bone sounds like a record from a band that’s trying to reestablish a foothold in a musical landscape that’s markedly different from the one that fostered their mightiest bits of mayhem. It doesn’t lack spark (though it does shoulder that problem at times) so much as it’s just overcautious. And while it connects as a far more enjoyable experience from beginning to end than either ‘02’s Plastic Fang or ‘04’s Damage, it still can’t help but betray that this admirable power trio’s back days might be far behind them.
If no return to form, Meat and Bone does at least steer the JSBX’s ship back onto something close to their true course; if they began two decades back by punking-out the gauche template of early Led Zep, on their best Matador albums they were sorta comparable to ZZ Top under the influence of performance enhancing drugs and with a serious jones for hip-hop.
While still heavy as all get out, Meat and Bone is creeping up on a zone defined by The Fabulous Thunderbirds. That’s not a dis. Maturity ain’t a bad way to go when you are indeed mature. Make no mistake; The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is older and wiser and returning to a different scene. I just wish they would fully embrace this reality instead of just reacting to it.
If the modus operandi of the Blues Explosion has always been to explicate that Bauer and Simins and most importantly Jon Spencer are a group of amazing musicians, Meat and Bone really does little to change that. In fact, it passionately substantiates that it’s possible to be amazing and average simultaneously.
GRADED ON A CURVE