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The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - Meat + Bone

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Artist: The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

Album: Meat + Bone

Label: Mom and Pop

Review date: Nov. 27, 2012

Meat + Bone, as the title suggests, is a stripped down, no frills return to basics for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the first album for the band since 2004’s Damage. It focuses relentlessly on the Cramps-inspired, John Lee Hooker filtered, James Brown-loving, Elvis-nodding core of the JSBX aesthetic, without much detour, experiment or any guests at all. There’s a discipline, almost a rigor, to Meat + Bone which, despite its surface hedonism, can stop, pivot and roar to life again with the precision of a Formula One race car.

It’s an interesting move for a band that’s been on ice for eight years, not to replicate past successes, but to pull back the skin and nerves and try to find what gave them life. It’s not just that Meat + Bone sounds like JSBX in the old days (it does), but that it does this without being self-referential or studied. The main elements are all as before. There is the dual guitar interplay of Judah Bauer and Jon Spencer, one of them (often Spencer) taking up the sonic space where a bass should live, the other working higher up, in the bends and pull-offs and shifting intonations of electric blues. There is Russell Simins who plays with an impossible combination of ferocity and delicacy, rattling intricate syncopations out of snare and kick drum and cowbell, then thwacking the most basic hell of out the kit with a force that surely is hard on the drum heads. And finally, there is Jon Spencer, the singer, with his gut-shot yelps, his syllable-stretching howls, his vaguely menacing mutter of non sequitors, his lurid Elvis-y blues croons, his mad preacher, rolling-eye rants, all delivered with 100% self-conviction.

Spencer the singer – the performer, really – is so overpowering an element that, perhaps, you can only really get perspective on how the band works by listening to an instrumental song. “Zimgar,” at the end of Meat + Bone, is the most elemental track on this pared-to-essentials album. It is named for the vintage Zimgar guitar that Spencer plays on it, an axe once sold at K-Mart in the 1960s, never exactly high end and now nearly untunable. Spencer plays it in drop-D tuning, sometimes through an organ pedal, so that it sounds like a particularly muzzy, distempered bass. He and Simins crank a slow, Booker T-ish vamp, messy around the edges, but locked like lego blocks onto one another. And over all this, Bauer plays a warm, fluid blues. The vocals, such as they are, consist of Spencer whispering “Zim-garrrrr” into the mic at odd intervals. If you’re curious about how JSBX manages James Brown-like propulsion without a bass player, this is the track to study. (Then go to “Get Your Pants Off,” which adds vocals and organ, but remains monumentally, sparely funky.)

Essentially, though, Meat + Bones is not a funk but a rock album, underpinned by R&B and blues as rock always is but not worshipful about it. “Boot Cut”’s basic vamp may sound just like Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” while the guitars in “Bottle Baby” have more than a whiff of “Soul Man” (and a little bit of “Paperback Writer,” too, later on), but JSBX takes these materials into raw, raggedly energized directions. There’s really nothing but rock in “Black Mold,” the album’s best, most filthily exuberant cut, with its downward rampaging, two guitar riff, its group shouts, its furious, intense funneling of chaos into tightly wound grooves. It was written apparently after Hurricane Irene and quite possibly itemizes a record collection lost in the flood (“Art Blakely, Ornette Colemen, Milton Babbit, Magic Sam, Randy Newman, Lonnie Smith, Grant Green, the explosive Little Richard, Little Walter…”). That’s a fine and diverse set of influences, not all of them traceable in Meat + Bone, but more than a few showing here and there. Like a raging flood, JSBX has picked up all sorts of things on its way down, but unlike Irene, the band has turned a jumble into something tight and precise and essentially its own.

By Jennifer Kelly

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