Whether you perceive him as a smirking art-schooler slumming on the po’ side of the music world or a primitivist prophet with an uncanny knack for devolving rock back to its crudest state, it’s hard to dispute the notion that Jon Spencer does it his way. He’s never been a poet or a pauper, but Spencer has been a record collector extraordinaire, a certified semiotics student and (judging by photos in some of Dixie’s more obscure roadside shacks) a dedicated soul food aficionado. Given the amount of smoke and mirrors he employs to realize absolute simplicity, it’s almost impossible to divine what makes Spencer tick — but in light of the uniform purity of his “essence,” it’s easy to forget the means and simply groove on the end.
For a good portion of the ’80s, Spencer and fellow Brown University alum Julia Cafritz led Pussy Galore, a DC-to-NYC band that put his advanced semiotics classes to good use, deconstructing rock to the point where it needed but a handful of words (chiefly “fuck”) and no true chords. While Pussy Galore (which variously contained ex-Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert, Spencer’s future Boss Hog partner Cristina and Royal Trux co-founder Neil Hagerty) grew slightly more conventional toward the end of its five-year run, the band’s most vigorously abstract early work is collected on the 28-track Corpse Love retrospective, which provokes puzzlement, indignation…mostly, it just provokes. Having exhausted that particular vein, Spencer tooled around as a sideman in the Honeymoon Killers and Gibson Bros and then formed the Blues Explosion, a trio that — while seemingly just as unschooled — pauses to genuflect, rather than piss, on the graves of its inspirations.
Even though the Blues Explosion — Spencer, second guitarist Judah Bauer and ex-Honeymoon Killers drummer Russell Simins — doesn’t so much play the blues as play with its signifiers, the group frequently falls into impressively raw approximations of such uninhibited genre forefathers as Hound Dog Taylor on embryonic releases like Crypt Style and A Reverse Willie Horton. While the bulk of the repertoire on both albums eventually appeared elsewhere, the latter disc is frenzied enough to merit pursuit. Lo-fi versions of songs like “History of Sex” far outstrip those on the self-titled Caroline disc — with their echoey mixes and cardboard drums, they sound like they could’ve been appropriated from scratchy 45s found in a secluded Tennessee thrift shop. A few tracks — like a reverb-heavy “Lovin’ Up a Storm” and the squalling snippet “40 Lb. Block of Cheese” — appear nowhere else.
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion — the “official” debut — maintains a good deal of the crude appeal of its low-budget neighbors. Spencer, who sounds like a man who’s just mainlined melted-down copies of Hasil Adkins’ entire back catalogue, hiccups and hyperventilates through the trebly commotion he and Bauer kick up on “Chicken Walk” and “Write a Song.” Those tracks in particular present a sea change in Spencer’s attitude. They’re basic — almost ridiculously so — but it’s not hard to imagine stylistic progenitors like Adkins or Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (whose “Constipation Blues” might make a nice cover for the Blues Explosion to tackle) nodding in appreciation at the authenticity of Spencer’s tribute.
Spencer keeps his pedal to the mettle throughout Extra Width, enhancing his palette with scratchy funk guitar (an innovation Simins matches with exponentially more swinging beats on “Afro”) and ear-splitting blasts of theremin — admittedly an “axe” they don’t have much use for in rural Mississippi. A few stretches, however, tiptoe uncomfortably close to the precipice of minstrel-show mimicry: It’s more than a little worrisome when the decidedly white-bread singer’s glottal hijinks cross into Soul Brother #63 territory on “History of Lies,” but Spencer doesn’t appear to give any more thought to that shtick than to any of the other personae he slips into. As for the songs, Spencer hasn’t lost his gift for meta-rock synthesis: “Soul Typecast” and “Soul Letter” are as circular in their content as any JB’s track, and the mostly instrumental “Inside the World of the Blues Explosion” conveys more biography in its single riff than any scribe could muster in a thousand words. Mo’ Width is an Australian appendix of outtakes from the sessions.
Orange, which elevates Spencer’s beloved theremin to cover-star status, is a bit more modern — although that’s a relative term. The tone is set in the unlisted intro track, rife with lush Philly-soul strings rubbing lasciviously enough against thick guitar riffs to draw a proud-poppa purr from Isaac Hayes. The recurring “Blues Explosion!” exhortation has become a sort of hoodlum mantra for Spencer, who blurts it into the face of song after song. Although “half-finished” would be overselling tracks like the fuzz-for-fuzz’s-sake “Dang,” there’s a singleminded seductiveness at play in such hormonal outbursts as “Sweat” and “Bellbottoms” — the raison d’être of which is clearly evident in their titles — that vaults the Blues Explosion into the ranks of rock’s truly primal forces.
As if to prove his willingness to sacrifice ego for art, Spencer allowed himself to be deconstructed — by studio wizards as dissimilar as Moby, Dub Narcotic Sound System and Wu-Tang Clan’s the Genius — on the six-track Experimental Remixes EP (later expanded to a full album by Mute). While the reworkings of Orange numbers are not all successful — Beck’s buffoonery doesn’t add a heck of a lot to the version of “Flavor” he and Beastie Boy Mike D spend a good deal of time revamping — the trial-and-error tone conforms to Spencer’s unwavering sense of adventure. Proof that sex — even when disguised — sells for a very good reason.
Showing a bit more of a funky bottom than usual, the JSBX keep their six feet firmly planted the mud on Now I Got Worry, going so far as to reflect some genuine Delta glory off labelmate R.L. Burnside (the blues-singing Mississippi oldtimer Spencer’s crew backed on 1966’s A Ass Pocket of Whisky) in the instrumental “R.L. Got Soul.”