Album Review: Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Acme”

Midway through “Talk About the Blues,” the first single from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s new disc Acme, Jon Spencer helpfully informs us that “I don’t play the blues; I play rock ‘n roll!” At virtually any point in Spencer’s personal history, it wouldn’t be difficult at all to believe him.

This is, after all, a man who started his career in Pussy Galore, one of the scummiest garage punk bands of all time, a man whose first album with the Blues Explosion was basically an excuse to get the band members to pose in drag on the cover. Even when he played with R.L. Burnside and brought Rufus Thomas in studio for Now I Got Worry, Spencer, despite making a couple of genuinely great records, still played the part of the punker masquerading as bluesman.

And so it would seem that “Talk About the Blues” only reasserts Spencer’s blues-skewering. Ditto the fact that Spencer brought in a veritable cornucopia of indie-cred icons to push the band’s sound in a more electronic direction. But underneath Acme’s bleeps, scratches and Spencer’s own self-aggrandizing aphorisms lies the bluesiest record JSBX has ever cut. At the album’s root is an insistent groove; when it clicks, Acme channels not just the sweatiness of great up-tempo blues but the hip-shaking power.

The band has always touched on this power thanks to the irrepressible drumming of Russel Simins. One of the most mechanically proficient drummers in the business, Simins hits with the calculated fury of a breakbeat, freeing guitarists Spencer and Judah Bauer to go off on excursions of their own. But this time around, Simins has considerable help.

Much of it comes from Dan the Automator, a virtuoso mixer and scratcher who helped shape Dr. Octagon’s visionary sound. He makes his mark felt most strongly on “Talk About the Blues,” delivering a groove so dense and funky that the band just sits back and lets Spencer pontificate to his heart’s delight. But he provides the fuel that ignites “Do You Wanna Get Heavy?,” “Lovin’ Machine” and “Attack” as well, both cementing the Blues Explosion and moving it along.

Even when Dan the Automator isn’t around, Spencer has tricks up his sleeve. “Magical Colors” waxes sensual to the point of lounginess on a swirling but propulsive organ riff “Calvin” lets Beath Happening/Halo Benders/Dub Narcotic Sound System frontman Calvin Johnson mix up a frenzy that’s half hip-hop, half blaxploitation.

The result of all this freewheeling fun sounds like a less feral, more cohesive update of Orange, the 1994 release that elevated the Blues Explosion from indie darlings to indie darlings, first class.

Harnessing Orange’s frenzied energy is the notorious/legendary Steve Albini, who engineers over half the tracks. To his credit, Albini doesn’t try to skronk up the JSBX sound: he lets “Magical Colors” take on a weird luster and gives the keystone blues riff of “High Gear” room to breathe before (successfully) cramming everything but the kitchen sink into the more claustrophobic “Lovin’ Machine” and “Attack,” the latter of which gets a makeover from Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot fame.

The grooves and guests give the first half of Acme an atmosphere that’s good-natured and playful without resorting to novelty; things begin to break down a little bit as the album wears on. “Blue Green Olga” never fully takes off, despite a guest appearance from Luscious Jackson’s Jill Cunniff; “Give Me a Chance” and “Desperate” find JSBX struggling to regain control of their own album, as if the machines that worked so well for them earlier are beginning to take on minds of their own. But the band harnesses one final blast of energy on the closer, “Attack,” a thoroughly charged blast of cacophony.

“Attack” is the least hinged track on an album that veers closer to the decidedly un-Spencerlike concept of song structure. “Magical Colors” and “Blue Green Olga,” for example, follow a largely congruous, comprehensible pattern. Although it’s still a stretch to think of Spencer as a songwriter per se, it is safe to say that Acme’s formal qualities are more bedrock, less quicksand, than on previous efforts. This is the first JSBX album that is almost as much about songs as individual moments.

Which should come as a refreshing change to those who dismiss Spencer’s shtick because it’s just that – shtick. There’s no denying that it’s on some level bizarre to hear a former Ivy Leaguer (he’s a Brown dropout) wail about “loadin’ up my truck” and “gettin’ into your business.” But over the years, Spencer has undergone a pretty remarkable transformation from a Stooges-loving punk singing crass anthems like “Pussy Stomp” to a sincere guy who brought an honest-to-god blues band from Mississippi up to New York to open at a recent show.

Whether he admits it or not, Jon Spencer’s music is no longer about irony; it’s about earnestness. And, of course, it’s about the blues: as Spencer reminds us right after telling us he plays rock ‘n roll, “the blues is number one!” Who am I to argue?

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