The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Dirty Shirt Rock 'n' Roll: The First Ten Years

There was a time when my musical interests stemmed directly from one man: Jon Spencer. While I had dug every grotesque utterance he made with Pussy Galore, it took me awhile to get on board his Blues Explosion soul train. But once I did (circa Orange), my turntable was dominated by the band and little else that wasn’t of a tangental relationship forged before, during or afterwards. Honeymoon Killers and Workdogs records were necessary pieces of a larger puzzle, and Boss Hog was second only to one.

But after awhile Spencer failed to hold my attention (circa Acme), as the Blues Explosion became, well, less explosive, and his schtick was suddenly actually a schtick. I sensed that his interest in his namesake began to wane too, as records became more and more infrequent. (Without including Sideways Soul, the remix album the Blues Explosion made with Dub Narcotic, the band has only released three studio albums since 1998.) The band even attempted some rebranding by dropping Spencer’s name from the moniker. Change is certainly the only constant, but it was still hard to fathom how a band that was once the centrifical force to my musical orbit had suddenly become obsolete.

With the release of Dirty Shirt Rock ’n’ Roll: The First Ten Years, it’s worth seeing how the Blues Explosion has aged in this new decade, especially since it marks the start of Majordomo’s campaign to rerelease the band’s catalog. Considering how much of what Spencer has done—both with the Blues Explosion and Pussy Galore—has turned out to be a precursor to the dominant rock strains of the recent past, that he and coconspirators should be given their due is all the more apparent.

Just glancing at the compilation’s 22 tracks makes it clear that this album wasn’t thrown together haphazardly. Indeed, Spencer had a hand in choosing the songs and their sequencing—and it shows. Though there’s only one song from the Blues Explosion’s first self-titled album (“Feeling of Love”), the majority of the album is evenly divided between the band’s primary albums. Better still, cuts from Controversial Negro (a live album), RL Burnside’s A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, which the band cut with Mississippi blues legend while at the top of their game, and the Experimental Remixes EP (an addendum to Orange) are included to give a comprehensive taste of the Blues Explosion’s oeuvre.

Leading off with “Chicken Dog,” a collaboration with Rufus Thomas, the record draws first blood. It is this kind of howling fervor that was the band’s forte, guitarist Judah Bauer knifing his way into the cut and drummer Russell Simins laying down beats part caveman stomp and part would-be breaks while Spencer cackles and croons over top. Similarly, the five-song block running from “Blues X Man” to “Fuck Shit Up” is one noise-saturated groove after another. And that was the band’s greatest trick: boiling rock down to bone-dripping, primal elements of noise and rhythm, making for the kind of pure visceral feeling that gives you the uncontrollable urge to dance, fuck, fight, or all three. Even on the only real blues on the record, Burnside’s “Shake’em On Down,” the band digs a furrow so deep it makes your teeth ache in pleasure.

But unfortunately, this comp makes it all the more painfully clear when and where Spencer went soft. “Magical Colors” (from Acme), for all its groovy countenance, is still milquetoast by Blues Explosion standards. The tracks from Plastic Fang, though, have more balls than I remember, but still, despite the album’s name, lack the teeth of the band’s prior work. That said, the record hits more than it misses, effectively chiseling out the Blues Explosion’s niche as r&r true-bloods of the highest order.
Stephen Slaybaugh