About to Burst
Even though the band has been making music for a decade, people still wonder whether the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is for real. No matter how hard the band rocks, the same questions linger: Are they making fun of the blues? Are they making fun of punk? Are they making fun of us?
Drummer Russell Simins wants to put our minds at ease.
"I think we just have a sense of humor," he says. "We take what we do very seriously. If an element of irony enters into it, I think that's just because of the way we view life in general. It's not like it's one big joke."
The distinction should be clear. But we live in a time when the middle ground keeps collapsing beneath our feet. You're either for President Bush or against the United States, a tree-hugger or an environmental rapist, a touchy-feely "new male" or a Neanderthal. The musical world is no exception, which is why we need bands like the Blues Explosion. They remind us how ridiculous it is to worry about whether culture is "authentic." After all, Robert Johnson may sound tortured sometimes, but he also can make you laugh. That playfulness is as integral to rock music as are suffering and desire.
"We're very passionate about music history," Simins says, adding that a subversive quality is "part of the music tradition that we appreciate, and it makes it into our music as well."
Reviews of the Blues Explosion's new record, Plastic Fang, have focused on front man Jon Spencer's werewolf persona. To be sure, there are quite a few songs in which he plays the wolf card, as does the video for the first single, "She Said." If you're looking for self-important lyrical posturing, you'll have to look elsewhere. And that bothers some folks who want their independent rock to plumb the depths of experience. Unfortunately, that view of what counts as meaningful experience is far too limited. The album's title provides the perfect rejoinder to such critiques. You don't wear plastic fangs to scare people. But you don't wear them to make fun of people, either. You wear them to have fun.
When the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion tries on the music of its forebears, from rockabilly Elvis Presley to arty James Chance and the Contortions, the band isn't seeking to show anybody up. As Simins puts it, "I think that's what we are mostly about -- the many influences that make up our music." This is immediately apparent to anyone who has seen the band perform live. On record, though, the Blues Explosion's rootsy noise has sometimes sounded a little distant. The shiny cover of its best-known album, Orange, mirrors the icy clarity of the record's production. And the cut-and-paste experiments with Dan the Automator scattered across the band's last full-length, 1999's Xtra-Acme USA, reinforce the impression that the Blues Explosion's playfulness might be excessively cerebral.
Middle America used to make the same complaint about the band's hometown. In the wake of 9/11, though, citizens of the Big Apple were embraced with the fervor of the prodigal son returning home for Thanksgiving. From the NYPD and NYFD hats heaped together at Sam' s Club to the metamorphosis of Rudy Giulani into a latter-day superhero, New York suddenly became the example of all that's good about the United States. And while it's probably a coincidence that a new generation of New York rock music is taking the world by storm now -- the Strokes have become deities in Great Britain, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who open for the Blues Explosion on this tour, aren't far behind -- it still feels strangely appropriate.
It would make sense if the Blues Explosion resented the success of these youngsters. But Simins insists that the band doesn't.
"I wouldn't call it resentment," he says. "We are appreciated within the music community as a band that has been carrying the torch for this kind of stuff. That doesn't go unnoticed. It's not mentioned on MTV, necessarily. But it is something that's recognized by the bands themselves and in music magazines." This also holds true for the White Stripes, from Detroit, and imports like the Hives from Sweden and the Vines from Australia. While Simins acknowledges that these acts have received "more attention than we've ever gotten on the commercial level," he feels it's more than a matter of luck. "Part of it is simply because these guys are more pop than we are. More pop stuff always comes to the forefront. It just does. And then they take these bands that are more pop than us and hype it as Rock has returned.'"
If there's an animus here, it is directed not at the bands that have followed in the Blues Explosion's footsteps, but at the pundits who spent the last half decade mourning the death of rock.
"I don't think that stuff ever went away," he says. "If you look at the best of what they call electronica, the music that's supposed to signal the death of rock,' like the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy and Fatboy Slim -- even the best hip-hop -- they all have the spirit of rock." At the same time, Simins freely admits that a shift has occurred in the past year. He points out that the "candy-coated" music of teen idols can go only so far before there's a backlash. "With the way the world is now, there's an appreciation for a stripped-down, less supercilious form of rock music. There's a call for live rock."
Political turmoil has often had that effect. It's no accident that the boom years of the second Clinton administration witnessed the diffusion of rock energy into experimentation with technology. Even the Blues Explosion got involved. While the move from Xtra-Acme USA to Plastic Fang is not of the same order as the Rolling Stones' return to earth on 1968's Beggars Banquet, Plastic Fang still sports the aura of a back-to-basics record. The songs are shorter, tighter and groovier than those that appeared on band's last few albums. And despite Simins' distinction between the Blues Explosion and bands like the Strokes and the White Stripes, the new record displays a stronger pop sensibility. Asked to summarize Plastic Fang, Spencer described it as "our most consistent record. Thematically, musically, sonically, it really is a whole."
Responding to reports that producer Steve Jordan reigned in the band's rhythmic eccentricities -- whereas all previous Blues Explosion records were self-produced -- Simins argues that the songs themselves dictated this approach. "It's better that they have a certain steadiness to them, even without compromising the energy," he says. "To be short about it, Plastic Fang is a more straightforward record that showcases the rock side of our band and has less playing around with the songs and fucking them up."
From one angle, these comments could be viewed as a sign of retrenchment. After all, when bands have a track record as long as the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's, it becomes easier to go through the motions. But Simins insists that the concept is still fresh. Explaining why the Blues Explosion has never deviated from the two-guitarists-and-a-drummer format, he admits that a bass player would come in handy at times but concludes, "It's not what we're about. The Blues Explosion has always been that way. I think we do a good job of making up for the absence of bass, especially on our records. And if there were a bass player, we wouldn't be able to be as exciting and over-the-top as we are. I think it would get in the way. Our format keeps things cruising at a certain speed. There's a certain craziness to our live show."
It will be interesting to see how the relative restraint of Plastic Fang translates into live performance. The band has been touring the songs for months, so all the details have been worked out by now. Will the steadiness of the record come undone? There's an awfully good chance that it will. But the result is bound to satisfy. Perhaps the most-refreshing thing about the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is its members' candor. They know how good they are. Asked for any parting thoughts, Simins describes watching a video of a recent Blues Explosion concert at the Brixton Academy in London.
"I was like, Wow.' It really blew me away. And I don't often say that when I see footage of us. I'm very proud of us as a rock band, how we've stuck together, and I think we're only getting better." He also has some advice for the public: "We're one of the greatest live rock bands. It's really important to see us play."
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