The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion Resurfaces

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Once, there was a time when James Brown was called “The hardest-working man in show business.” The title was deserved; Brown was a notorious workaholic – sometimes playing as many as three hundred and thirty one-nighter shows in a year – and famously used to deduct pay from members of his band if they missed a note. His touring schedule may have slowed toward the end of his life, but the fanfare didn't – even in his final final shows months before his death, Brown was still setting records [the 2006 Oxygen festival in Punchestown drew a record 80,000-member attendance –ed] and still commanding respect on stage.

With Brown's passing on December 25, 2006, a significant void significant void in the music spectrum was left. It is that void that Jon Spencer seems intent on filling given his actions and the workload he has taken on. In two years, Spencer has:
    – recorded and released two albums with Matt Verta-Ray  
       as Heavy Trash.
    – toured around the world with Heavy Trash on several
    – double-teamed Solex with his wife Cristina Martinez on
       the album Amsterdam Throwdown, King Street
       Showdown! [to be released on May 18, 2010 via
       Bronze Rat Records –ed].
    – toured select dates with Martinez and her band, Boss

That would be regarded as a hectic schedule for almost anyone but Spencer has upped the ante even further. March 30, 2010 will see the release in the singer's re-examination his Blues Explosion followed by a series of remastered, deluxe edition reissues. The series of releases will begin with a greatest hits compilation, Dirty Shirt Rock 'N' Roll, to be released on March 30, 2010, with reissues of Now I Got Worry, Acme and Crypt Style to follow, among others. “These Blues Explosion reissues are something else,” exclaims Spencer in a tone equal parts surprise and pride. “Shout Factory approached me about the possibility of putting out an album of unreleased material and, at the time, I told them there was pretty much the whole catalogue because everything had either gone out of print or was going out of print. Everything had reverted to the band and I just thought it would be nice to make everything available again so that's what we're going to do.”

Upon hearing the announcement, anyone familiar with the band and its catalogue will be wondering what exactly will be contained in these reissues for one very obvious reason: there is a tremendous amount of music. The fact is, many of the albums released by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion came out in very different forms around the world; and it had nothing to do with the late-Nineties bootlegging explosion that happened just before Napster reset the bar and wiped many of the legally dubious companies out. For example, Crypt Style and the self-titled Jon Spencer Blues Explosion came out around roughly the same time and were both reliant upon many of the same songs, but there were some obvious differences and, when you're a fan, those differences start to add up. So will long-time fans be best advised to hold on to the collection of expensive imports they've amassed? In this case, there's no point in holding on to them; these new reissues are going to be comprehensive offerings, and they've also been painstakingly remastered by Spencer himself so, unless a fan has some sentimental reason for wanting to hold onto the old editions, the new ones are as good or better according to Spencer. “As I say, we had started talking about the possibility of doing them about two years ago, but I think it's been in the last six months that we've really begun working in earnest on getting everything together for these to come out,” continues the singer excitedly. “It's been a very big project; we spent a lot of time tracking down tapes. I own all the masters and everything of course, but finding where all of the stuff is has been another matter. Tracking down missing tapes, assembling old photos, and remastering the material… just trying to get everything done has been a huge project.

“I didn't want to just reissue the albums because, to be completely honest, I was never really happy with the way a lot of the really early stuff sounded and wasn't happy with some of the sound quality or the mastering on some of it either,” continues the singer on his experiences going through the material so far. “I feel a bit removed from them because it has been such a long time; it's almost like they're records by another band. When I'm in working with the mastering engineer now on these reissues, I'm basically come at a lot of this stuff anew; it's a fresh start so I'm largely trying to make them sound as best they can to my ears today. We're including a lot of stuff that was never made readily available, except on imports; like right now I'm working on the releases for Now I Got Worry and Controversial Negro. Controversial Negro is a live album that was previously only released in Japan; it came out in North America in a much shorter form – as a promotional-only vinyl LP. In addition to that, we're doing A Reverse Willie Horton, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Crypt Style, and those going to be combined into one package that will be called Year One and will cover everything; everything we recorded with Kramer, everything we recorded with Albini, and a couple of things that were done on the side. Then we're going to do three more after that so it's going to be six album reissues in total [Now I Got Worry and Controversial Negro are being reissued on May 18, 2010, Extra Width will be combined with Mo' Width, Orange comes beefed up with the Experimental Remixes EP, the reissue of Acme will boast a second disc of Xtra-Acme USA and Year One will be comprised of A Reverse Willie Horton, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Crypt Style –ed] and the compilations. Each of them is going to be greatly expanded with a lot of extra tracks – for each of these albums with the exception of Orange, we probably recorded about two albums-worth of material and some of that material has gone unreleased until now –  some of them are going to be two-disc sets, and each reissue will contain liner notes and a lot of photos. Needless to say, we've put a lot of work going into this to make sure that these are really nice packages that will be something people who are new to the band will enjoy, and maybe some fans that previously owned Crypt Style or one of the rest.

“As I've been working on the remasters and mixes for the reissues, I'm trying to be true to the spirit of the band, trying to be true to the spirit of the individual album and also trying to make it sound as good as I can today using today's equipment and today's audio standards,” says Spencer with blunt honesty. “It's not really like I'm trying to correct something that happened ten or fifteen years ago, it's not like I'm trying to radically alter anything; that's not the case at all. Some of the changes are very minor and very subtle, and some of the changes in the remastered sound quality will be much more noticeable, I think. In particular, the material from this Year One CD will be radically improved and I think we've made things on Now I Got Worry a lot better. There are a lot of new things on these reissues for people to enjoy, I think.”

Of course, every walk – no matter how far back or forward – starts with a single step and, in this case, the step will be Dirty Shirt Rock 'N' Roll – a collection of songs to function as an overview and whet the appetites of listeners. The raucous tone gets set right off the top with the blustery, swaggering and scruffy “Chicken Dog” (complete with guest vocals from Stax superstar Rufus Thomas) before jumping into the countrified end of the spectrum with “Magical Colors.” Between those two extremes lays all the terrain most regularly tread upon by The Blues Explosion but, in those two songs, many of the staple sounds that have been the band's bread and butter are also in full effect; (what Spin contributor Rob Sheffield called) Spencer's “Grade-Z Elvis impersonator” faux-Southern twang combines with Judah Bauer's deceptively solid country-blues guitar licks and Russell Simins' positively enormous drums in a charmed way and so make them the quintessential fare for the band, in spite of not really sounding at all similar. That ability to take stock examples of tradition yet reconstitute them in a dozen different ways typified the band's approach at the height of their powers and continues to burn with the same kind of fire here, but it's only two tracks in; as DSRNR illustrates, the band would go far further out. Songs like “Money Rock N' Roll,” “Leave Me Alone So I Can Rock Again”, “She Said” and “Talk About The Blues” all express a fantastic faculty of writing fine genre rock songs while “Bellbottoms,” a live cut of “Fuck Shit Up,” (the Beck-infused) “Flavor”  and “Greyhound”do the same with a more distinctly R&B or Soul focus and “Wail,” “History Of Sex” and “Water Main” all smash their heads off the punk rock and, in each case, the band plays the sound to the hilt before letting it drop near completely to concentrate on something else. All the possible generic spaces in between get filled in here by material including “Buchemi,” “Shake 'Em On Down” and “Afro,” but those are really the gravy here – the aforementioned songs already illustrate that, if it could be found in the pop idiom, the Blues Explosion was not only game to give it a try, they could pull off their own permutation which would include equal amounts of “them” and “anything else.”

With the buzz at the forthcoming reissues and unreleased material already beginning to brew, it begs the obvious question of whether or not the renewed interest might be a sign that the band is coming back. “Well, you know? We never sent word out that we were gone,” says Spencer coyly when asked what the plan for JSBX will be from here. “The three of us agreed to take a break and it has been a long break, but we never decided to call it quits. We'll be playing around a bit. We're playing New York City next month, and we're going to be playing the Pitchfork Festival in July and we're talking about possibly coming up to Canada later in the summer so we are going to be playing a few dates here and there, and we'll see how it goes. We've got a new record label now with Shout Factory/Majordomo for these reissues, so who knows? It might be a pretty good plan to start working on a new album. We don't have anything recorded yet,  but we might start working on something, yeah.”


Further Reading:

Ground Control's review of Dirty Shirt Rock 'N' Roll by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.


Dirty Shirt Rock 'N' Roll
comes out on March 30, 2010 through Shout Factory/Majordomo Records. Pre-order it here on Amazon .

The deluxe reissue edition of Now I Got Worry comes out on May 18, 2010 through Shout Factory/Majordomo Records. Pre-order it here on Amazon .

The deluxe reissue edition of Controversial Negro comes out on May 18, 2010 through Shout Factory/Majordomo Records. Pre-order it here on Amazon .

Comments are closed.