Feature: Wednesday, April 25, 2002
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Times Square Toodle-Oo

‘Punk-blues’ come home with Jon Spencer’s latest.

By Anthony Mariani

Punk moved forward by looking back, initially perhaps to when cavemen cudgeled rawhide stretched over water basins. Now it seems that some of the style’s sons and daughters have arrived at the early 20th century, somewhere near the blues’ birthplace of the Mississippi Delta. Their beats are quicker, spunkier, their riffs still — intentionally? — obsidian-like, but everything is altogether ... different. They seem to have stumbled onto the link between punk and the stone-cold blooze. The Immortal Lee County Killers, for instance, not only cut one of the qualitatively bitchingest punk LPs of ’99 with The Essential Fuck-Up Blues, but they also probably gave those W.C. Handy Awards folk something to ponder (“. . . and the award for best blues group goes to . . . The Revelators!?!”).

The lineage of the punk-bluesman can be traced directly back to one band, NYC’s Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. It’s funny that whitey, white-collar heavy metal (instead of liberal, lefty punk) seems to have exploited the idea first — that there’s still a ton of “good,” sellable music to be made incorporating African-American craft (in metal’s case: rap) into white tradition. The truth is that the JSBX were mining, if not blues technique, then at least blues spunk back pre-Clinton, pre-multi-culturalism. One band does not a movement make, however. It has taken a while for the punk-blues thing to catch on, but it’s pretty much solid that the marriage will stick. Lots of bands are a-doing the punk-blues shuffle.

Back in 1992, when the JSBX used their eponymous commercial debut to lay bare their mission of impiously confronting blues tradition, public reception was cold. White guys weren’t allowed to signify on black art. Spencer himself was dismissed, by black and white crits, as inauthentic, minstrelsy — and perhaps rightfully so. We should be suspicious of deliberate “comments” on popular art forms. Telling the difference between a slick esthete with exploitation on his mind and a devout noisenik is nearly impossible; it’s only through the passage of time that the intentions of artists become clear. After the JSBX collaborated with legendary bluesman R.L. Burnside for A Ass Pocket of Whiskey (Matador) and then delivered Acme (Matador), both in the mid- to late-1990s, listeners could not ignore Spencer’s commitment to this novel sound, this new punk-blues. He had dedicated an entire decade to it, spawning a generation of followers, from the ILCK to the White Stripes to the Neckbones of Oxford, Miss. If that’s not “legit,” then I don’t know what is.

Functioning as two people at once, both contained in a single, scrawny, pencil-necked bod, lends Spencer a certain mystique that in some ways resembles a legendary bluesman’s aura. You could also say that Robert Johnson was somewhat of a split personality — one self devoted to making magical music lived on one side of his brain, while that other self that colluded with the devil lived on another. In Plastic Fang (Matador), the JSBX’s latest, Spencer’s torn self is personified by the werewolf. The mythical manimal dominates the album cover, jacket art, and a bunch of the songs. Being a werewolf does not necessarily make for a happy life, which leads to several interpretations: Does Spencer see himself as a type of victim? Is this just another c.d. of an artist’s complaints and explanations? Or is it an honest-to-goodness exploration of the murky corners of personality? Only the tunes will tell.

Spencer’s vocal stylings show an obvious reverence toward white, ’50s-era rock/rockabilly shouters. His technique of sucking in deep and spitting out throwaways with just the right overabundance of vibrato has never been more refined than on Plastic Fang. For anyone who’s ever heard a Lux Interior interpretation of psychobilly mumbo-jumbo, it’s a mode of delivery that conjures up the entire world of pulp, from novels to movies to records. Spencer is in absolute peak form. His instrument controls entire tracks, determining their timbres. Comprehending how well Spencer actually seems to believe in his sometimes ridiculously sublime lyrics — and play off and within the framework of Judah Bauer’s riffage and Russell Simins’ perfect drum work — requires a listen to the bluesy epic-of-an-intermezzo, “Hold On.”

Coming right about in the middle of the 12-song disc, the tune begins with a laid-back, complicated little beat in which the hint of a hip-hop rhythm dissolves into a single, slow roll before starting all over again. Then Spencer attacks the mic as if he’s in concert with 500 ticket-holding folks at his feet (probably marveling at how someone so skinny and slight can convey über-masculinity without breaking a bone or two). The tune, in fact, is live chutzpah captured in studio wizardry (thanks to Steve Jordan — Blues Brothers, Saturday Night Live, Keith Richards, etc.). “That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, that’s a Blues Explosion all the way from New York City,” he sing-talks. “We come all the way from New York City to be with you people tonight!” Come all the way into my boombox? Well, that’s the intent. With a loosey-goosey, chill blues riff providing the backdrop to Spencer’s “interactive” dramatizing, the listener becomes complicit in the vibe’s success.

Don’t think for a minute that Spencer and Jordan don’t know about all those Alan Lomax recordings and once-buried Leadbelly outtakes you’ve been digging on recently. Rawness equals “good.” Makin’ shit up on the fly, even better. “I’m ’onna get up right now,” Spencer declares matter-of-factly, defiantly, toward the end of the song, “and I’m ’onna do it.” The beat rolls on, the fuzz curls. “I got a big wad of Bazooka,” he insists. Then after a beat, he drops his voice: “And I’m ’onna chew it.” Yeah, ok, so it’s not Dylan — and was probably made up on the spot — but it’s funny as hell (probably because we can tell it was made up on the spot) and, in a queer way, worthy of our admiration. Chew long and prosper, werewolf.

Which brings us to the man’s persecution complex. In Acme, after the Blues Explosion had reached critical mass, Spencer went after Rolling Stone magazine, which had once published a rather unflattering interview with him. In Plastic Fang, Spencer, while not directly addressing his tormentors, bemoans being hounded, specifically in the meandering but not ponderous “Killer Wolf.” Speaking as the werewolf, and in his trademark twang, he plaintively sings, “I am the guilty one / Ball and chain around my leg / I am the cursed one / Black cloud hanging overhead.” Can you stand it? Shee-ut, if the music’s right, I bet you can. Here, the lazy, stuttering tempo matched with an old-fashioned bluesy rhythmic canopy of twangy guitars comes cold correct. It’s almost — what? — sad. “I’d like to break my poor, black heart,” he sings, “Why don’t you worship me?” Exactly. What does it really matter if Spencer never, say, drove a three-mule team by himself or in some other way lived under Jim Crow — like a lot of “real,” “authentic” bluesmen? His poor, black heart is in the right place. That’s all we can really ask for.

Everyone is calling Plastic Fang the JSBX’s throwback album, the band’s return to its hard-rocking, scuzz-rock roots. The throwback label makes sense because on Acme, with its high-powered production and pre-fab beats, the boys, against common sense, seemed to be headed down the techno highway. When you look at what the JSBX are throwing back to now, though, you’ll discover it’s a little different from what they were pounding out a decade ago: They’re not dipping into punk-blues as much as they’re dipping into the blues itself. Is Plastic Fang the JSBX’s assertion of their primacy over the whole punk-blues thing? Or did the band decide to cash in on the phenomenon they’d created? Likely, money isn’t an issue. These guys have enough of that. My bet is that the JSBX, like most any other marquee act, want to survive. Plastic Fang is a grab at some “credibility” in a world of soundalikes and dissers. Congratulations, boys. Cred is yours.


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