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Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, "Now I Got Worry"

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
"Now I Got Worry"
Matador (1996)

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

There's always the argument that Elvis Presley "stole" blues and R&B from black Americans and became the biggest individual musician in history using it. So what happens when other white folk steal Elvis's style and tweak it to their own liking? For The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, it certainly didn't make them as popular as Elvis, or even as much so as the bluesmen that Elvis stole from to begin with. "Oh well," is probably the band's response.

It's tough to deny that during the best songs on "Now I Got Worry," the Explosion are straight-up ripping off Presley. Take "Wail" for example. Spencer's voice is dead on Elvis's smooth baritone and his howls on tracks like "Skunk" aren't too far removed from The King either; Presley's shrieking did just as much as his hips to make his work the "music of the devil." Guitarist Judah Bauer also lays down similar rambling period blues and rockabilly riffs. The band adds one undeniably white trait to their blues however: distortion. Just like Neil Young and dozens of grunge guitarists before it, The Explosion is awash in fuzz. The intensely lo-fi recording approach makes the band sound as dirty as the Mississippi John Hurts that came before it, and it sets the group apart from dozens of blues-rock posers (e.g. Eric Clapton. Yeah. I went there).

You can check the group's genuine dedication to the genre by checking out who it worked with around 1996. On "Worry," Rufus Thomas (a '50s R&B artist ironically enough dropped from Philips Records when it sought out a white audience with acts like Presley) takes the role of vocalist in "Chicken Dog," a bastardization of his own singles, "Do The Funky Chicken" and "Walk The Dog." Instrumental jam "R.L. Got Soul" is a reference to guitarist R.L. Burnside, who didn't make an appearance on this album, but recorded "A Ass Pocket of Whiskey" (Probably my favorite blues record. I can't recommend it enough) with the band under his own name. Burnside's tendency towards obscenity is one of many influences he had on Spencer.

The Explosion are often placed among the highest innovators of "punk blues," a term describing blues-style rock that's often sped up or experimented with. I would argue that the band is the most punk of the groups typically listed under the title (Social Distortion is hardly "punk." Sorry). The White Stripes are not punk in the least, but Jack White's distinct, screechy guitar style is essentially a much more polished version of Bauer's licks.

The group screws around with other genres throughout, including the more electronic "Fuck Shit Up (Dub Narcotic)" and album closer "Sticky," but you'll be better off sticking with the good old new-fashioned blues. This music is invariably too dirty for blues purists (or white people who thought they listened to the blues), and if you think Jack White's scratching is irritating, I can guarantee a full-on migraine when listening to The Explosion. If you dig Black Keys and White Stripes however, dig in.

INTERESTING FACT: When the band signed to Caroline Records, it requested a ten disc Jerry Lee Lewis box set as a signing bonus. The label never bought the set and the band left less than a year later. When it signed with Matador, it asked for a nine disc Stax Records set, and they got it. The band spent more than ten years with the label.

Wail by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion on Grooveshark

1 comment:

  1. One of the greatest things the John Spencer Blues Explosion did was bring R.L. Burnside to the fame he deserved. Take a listen to "A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey" and listen to them take an old bluesman and make him something the kids loved. Sampling, overdubs, just plain reckless recording. It's a great album! Personally, I think much better than this one. Oh, and Elvis ripped everyone off. He took the blues and made it cool. It's what musicians, writers, and painters have been doing for generations. Good job man! Love your opinions, I don't agree with them all, but you sound like the type of guy I'd love to argue the relevance of this record over a beer.