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The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - Orange / Experimental Remixes / Acme

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Artist: The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

Album: Orange / Experimental Remixes / Acme

Label: Shout! Factory

Review date: Nov. 12, 2010


The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - "Calvin" (Acme)


In 1997, right in the middle of the period documented by these two reissues, Jim DeRogatis encapsulated the backlash against Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s theatrical R&B and soul-referencing act by asking, "Mr. Spencer," I hesitantly begin, "If you really loved black music as much as you said you did, how come you could never get beyond making fun of it?"

DeRogatis’ piece, which originally ran in Penthouse, was never as negative as this sucker-punch implies, but then, it wasn’t the only article of its kind. The piece that inspired “Talk About the Blues,” in which Spencer upended Mississippi Fred McDowell’s line, “I do not play rock ‘n roll” ran in Rolling Stone. The criticism always centered around the issue of authenticity. What right did Spencer — white, middle-classed and educated — have to mine predominantly African American traditions like blues, R&B and soul? And if he was going to do so, could he at least take it seriously? Otherwise, charges of cultural imperialism, exploitation, even racism were likely to fly.

The argument was flawed for any number of reasons, starting with the fact that for its entire history, rock and roll has consisted of white men playing black riffs, with widely varying degrees of respect and fidelity. Why single out JSBX and not Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, MC5, The White Stripes and a hundred other bands? And why wss the criticism coming pretty much solely from music writers, who coincidentally, were mostly as white, middle-class and educated as Spencer himself? Actual black musicians like R.L. Burnside, Andre Williams, GZA from the Wu-Tang Clan and Rufus Thomas — the guys whose patrimony Spencer was supposedly pillaging — didn’t seem to have much of a problem with Blues Explosion.

In any case, the backlash was fierce, and you might think that a guy who had run into this much trouble referencing early black rock and roll might shy away from further confrontation. To the contrary, Orange and Orange Experimental Remixes (recently reissued by Shout! Factory), found him pushing further at genre conventions, borrowing from another racially-charged set of references: hip hop. To Blues Explosion’s ragged two-guitar-and-drums strut, Orange adds the sounds of mid-1990s rap — scratching, synthesizers and cavernous beats. Spencer rants James Brown-style over string-pulsating “Greyhound.” The cut’s roughhousing guitars and garage band shouts are at odds with its R&B sleekness. “Dang”’s overdriven, freight-train blues rampage is broken by harmonica, as you might expect, but also squiggly electronics. Beck, then just off the rap-folk hit “Loser” and weighted with his own genre-crossing baggage, rhymes over “Flavor”. The line between JSBX’s crate-digging R&B homage and hip hop’s sampling of the same set of influences is blurred. The drum break in “Orange” is probably an old-style Stax reference, played live, but it might also easily be a sampled breakbeat. A volatile concoction of live blues rock and conceptual fuckery, Orange is never less than interesting, never less than a hell of a ride.

If Orange flirted with hip hop, Experimental Remixes took it one step further, sending out the tracks for remixes as rap artists did then and now. The Shout! Factory reissue includes both the original album and Experimental Remixes on one 34-track disc. GZA’s version of “Greyhound Part 2” is the clear stand-out, with its ominous beat and apocalyptic language, though Beastie Boy Mike D and Beck (“White boys in the house”) turn “Flavor” into something even looser jointed, trippier and more shambling than the album version.

Between Orange and Acme, Blues Explosion toured with R.L. Burnside and recorded both A Ass Pocket of Whiskey with him and Mo Width without him. Acme continued with the remix concept, though this time, not as an afterthought, but as an integral part of the recording process, where several separate remix tracks might be combined into a single finished song. The reissue of Acme is even more extensive than that of Orange, an additional 30 tracks added to the original album’s 13. This is the album that includes Spencer’s pissed off rebuttal “Talk About the Blues,” where he insists that however wonderful the blues may be, what he plays is rock and roll. It also has the wonderfully deranged “Lapdance” with vocals from Andre Williams and, as a bonus track, “Black Godfather” from Williams’ second album, with Blues Explosion as backing band. Acme seems, on its surface at least, a good deal more straightforward and less experimental than Orange, but it rocks pretty hard. (Except when it doesn’t, as on the laid-back and really kind of beautiful “Magical Colors.”)

Taken together, these two reissues have 77 tracks and more than five hours of music, and raise not so much DeRogatis’ question but the more practical one: How is anyone supposed to listen to them? It’s not an option to stick to the originals and skip the extra tracks, since lots of these extras — the live session from just before Orange was recorded at CBGB’s, the “Tour Diary” which was once a hidden track on Experimental Remixes — are overall highlights. Here you get a sense for just how powerful and, yes, over the top, a Blues Explosion show could be, and how much crap this band took for the fact that they put the word “Blues” in their name. Yet if you can get past both ideas — that this was a staged, theatrical performance, not some tortured outpouring of anyone’s soul, and that it was not really in any sense “the blues” — then maybe you could learn to love the Blues Explosion. These exhaustive reissues are a good place to start.

By Jennifer Kelly

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