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Meet the New Boss

When über-label conglomerates PolyGram and Universal Music merged just over a year ago, it shook the record industry to its very foundation, swallowing or killing long-established labels like A&M and Geffen, and leaving a trail of displaced bands in its wake.This meant disaster for literally hundreds of groups that saw not only their record contracts, but entire labels, disappear overnight. For Boss Hog in particular, the long-running project fronted by Cristina Martinez, the merger and the group's subsequent pink slip could have been tragic. The band had begun work on its first record in nearly five years, Whiteout, and legally, Geffen owned the songs the band had written for it. "I was like, 'We want to know right away,' what are they going to do with us? And [Geffen] said, "We're sort of on the fence about you,'" recalls Martinez .

"I thought all along, 'They'll probably end up keeping the record, it's a really good record,' and I consider myself an asset to anyone's company," she says, laughing. But Geffen decided against keeping Boss Hog on its roster and originally planned on shelving Whiteout. However, thanks to some impressive negotiating by the band's manager and attorney, the label eventually capitulated, releasing the songs back to the band, and paying a contractually obligated advance for the record. Which, as Martinez gleefully explains, means "anything we make off this record is profit. I wouldn't have gotten a penny if I'd stayed on Geffen. In the end, I think the record would have suffered a great deal from staying there, because apparently it's total chaos there." Instead, Whiteout was released in February on independent In the Red Records.

Two subjects come up automatically whenever Boss Hog is mentioned -- Martinez's husband and Boss Hog guitarist Jon Spencer (of the eponymous Jon Spencer Blues Explosion), and sex. Much is made of the former -- an unusual situation in any case to have wife and husband in the same group. But it's even more remarkable when you consider that both the band and the marriage have been in place for more than a decade -- Spencer and Martinez were part of seminal late-'80s punkers Pussy Galore. As one might expect, Martinez is a bit weary of music critics' queries about her personal life. "Those are the worst questions, the most sort of knee-jerk ones. I can see why people would be interested in a sort of Star or Enquirer type of way, but not in a rock magazine -- it's like, is that what you want to know about the band? I'm always astounded when there aren't any questions about the production value, and it's all just personal things."

Then there's the sex, another tiresome subject for Martinez, but one that she's brought on herself in many ways. It's an intrinsic part of Boss Hog's music and image -- at the band's first performance at CBGB in New York, Martinez decided she would perform completely in the nude, and Boss Hog's debut album featured a naked Martinez on its cover. Little has changed except perhaps the degree of her exhibitionism; Whiteout's cover features her clad only in stringy opalescent panties, with her long hair conveniently censoring the rest. The album's songs also seethe with a sexual tension worthy of the most libidinous '70s R&B.

But again, Martinez is tired of hearing about it. "It's just ridiculous, and it seems to get worse the older I get. I think it's a valid point when you're talking about Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera or somebody like that, but for Boss Hog, it's like, "What?' Because I'm in a bikini it's somehow offensive, or perverted, or anything worth mentioning? It's just a nice picture, y'know? Stage-wise, it's not like we're up there fucking or doing some sort of weird Nashville Pussy thing, where we're in your face about it. It's just about sexual tension in a relationship, which is natural."

Though the creative element of Boss Hog has remained intact -- the five-piece includes bassist Jens Jurgensen (formerly of the Swans), drummer Hollis Queens, and keyboardist Mark Boyce (Delta 72, Goats), as well as Martinez and Spencer -- Whiteout is a departure of sorts. Rather than the abrasive punk rock of the past, the group's sound has been infused with a pop edginess and New Wave smarm that makes it sound nearly retro. Mixed by five different producers, the tracks still retain a sparkling cohesion that makes them as danceable as they are listenable. The first half of the record is distinctly New Wave, replete with drum loops and repetitive keyboard riffs; the latter half is strictly modern pop.

"What happened initially is that I wanted to use two producers, because we wrote two distinctly separate kinds of songs, and I thought I should find producers appropriate for the type of song. Then, through no fault of his own, Andy Gill [Gang of Four] didn't have enough time to remix things properly, so we had run out of time and money and I had to get local people to come in and help me fix a couple songs," Martinez explains.

"I was surprised actually by the poppiness and the New Wave-ness of the songs, and thought that we should just push them further in that direction, not be half-assed about it and really just take it as far as we can go. That was the production decision, which is why the record sounds the way it does. We didn't just give it the normal punk-rock production, and that would've really betrayed the songs, I think."

The record opens with the title track, a funky, stuttering melody constructed around Martinez's sensuous purr and Queens' Aretha-esque background belting, filled out by an elastic What's Happening-style keyboard riff. "Get It While You Wait" pushes the band's New Wave fixation to the next plateau, matching ghostly organ atmospherics with Martinez's impressive Siouxsie Sioux vocal imitation.

The most Spencer-tinted track on Whiteout, "Chocolate," drips with the guitarist's distinctive riffing and robotic thumps and whistles. The song is an electrified oath of affection between husband and wife; Cristina coos, "My baby, he's the man," with Spencer responding, "That's right!" in classic Blues Explosion style. The following track, "Nursery Rhyme," is almost contradictory, balancing the previous sentiments with thoughts of an "unhappy ending," and a chorus with Martinez declaring, "'Cause I can't . . . I can't forgive you."

The most touching and introspective moment on the record is "Fear for You," Martinez's reflections on the most important project in her life of late, motherhood. The song is a tortured musing on the vulnerability that comes with having a child, a rather serious subject that's offset by the stirring upbeat melody and driving bass line.

Martinez and Spencer's recent family building put Boss Hog on the back burner for nearly five years. For Martinez it's been half a decade outside the rock lifestyle -- no touring, no laboring in the studio, just time spent at home raising a child. But Whiteout proves that the hiatus hasn't been damaging; on the contrary, it's given Martinez a new perspective on her career choice. Four weeks into the touring cycle (three and a half of those spent in Europe, with family and baby sitter in tow), she's feeling reflective and self-satisfied.

"I feel pretty much more excited than I ever have about doing it. It's been great; our shows have been consistently good, which isn't something I could've said about the past. I think that we're playing better than ever, and it's more fun than it's ever been for me because now I really appreciate the time that I have to do it, and I love doing it."

Boss Hog is scheduled to perform on Sunday, May 28, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe, with Holly Golightly and Bob Log III. Showtime is 9 p.m.

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Brendan Joel Kelley