The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Year One, Extra Width, Orange and Acme
Major Domo

With Major Domo reissuing the vast majority of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion catalog, I’ve waxed on the band’s noisy virtues and their eventual shortcomings several times before. But with the last two installations of the reissue campaign, there’s more than enough reason to delve back in, as these four releases give the most complete picture of the band. It’s hard to imagine the band on Year One, a compilation of the sessions that spawned A Reverse Willie Horton, the self-titled album and Crypt Style, ever becoming the one on Acme, made just six years later. But this was a band that was working overtime to deconstruct the various elements that went into rock & roll (blues, R&B, rockabilly, etc.) and reassemble them in its own image.

Year One is exactly what it portends to be: the band in its formative state. Spencer hadn’t divorced himself entirely from the frayed notions of his prior outfit, Pussy Galore, but Judah Bauer’s guitar playing seems timid, particularly on the sessions done with Kramer. Cuts like “Water Main” and “Rachel” are bashed out without a lot of finesse, but one can tell the seeds are being sown. The band may still be getting to know one another musically, but there’s signs of recognition. Things do start to gel on the sessions done with Steve Albini, Bauer coming out of his shell and Spencer getting mushmouthed on songs like “What to Do.” There was something feral and stupendous already at work that the band would soon capitalize upon.

The Blues Explosion came into its own with Extra Width, originally released by Matador in 1993. Here everything started to come together: Spencer and Bauer settled into their yin and yang guitar roles, drummer Russel Simins had hit on a punchy, hip-hop–like groove, and Spencer had found his calling as a yowling and jiving frontman. “Afro,” the album’s opener and first single, brings keys into the formula, contributing the sugar to the Explosion’s sweet and salty mix. On songs like “Soul Typecast” and “Backslider,” Spencer sounds as much soul man as mock medicine man, leading his crew into a noisy fray that grooves as much as it rocks. The reissue adds in the Au-Go-Go issued Mo’ Width, an Australian release of outtakes that includes goodies like the bombastic “Rob K Is President” and the slithery “Johnson.” The second disc collects another 17 rarities and seven live tracks, showing just how on the Blues Explosion was at this time.

While Extra Width was the Blues Explosion’s coming of age, Orange is when they truly developed their prowess. While more refined than Extra Width (dig the strings on the opener, “Bellbottoms”), Orange loses nothing for it. Here the band got its mojo going at top speed. The record swaggers and swings, while still spitting out plenty of pure gutbucket ruckus. That same leadoff track itself mutates into a soul breakdown sputtering with white heat, before segueing into an uppercut of elastic guitar stuttering in “Ditch.” By this time the Blues Explosion had become the kind of band that could turn on a dime and would do so whenever Spencer gave the signal. There’s all kinds of noise thrown into the mix (check the theremin on “Dang”), but this record is about the beat. “Sweat” may seem to roll on Spencer’s beck and call, but it is Simins’ steady beat that keeps it all in line. “Greyhound” is a soulful instrumental boiled down to low-end guitar rumble and the punch of the snare, hi-hat and bass, one which could have been a Dr. Dre backing track. This album represents the Blues Explosion in its purest state, with no barrier between thought and expression.

From the kitschy opening samples, it was clear from the get-go that Acme wasn’t going to revisit any of the same roads the Blues Explosion had been down before. Now I Got Worry, released after Orange in 1996, had returned the band to its raucous roots, and now Acme was going to go someplace else entirely. And that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Spencer wanted to indulge his interest in hip-hop and electronica, and the band even laid down some initial tracks with Dan the Automator. But even the thousands of dollars that they spent using different engineers and studios didn’t keep the record from sounding hackneyed. Spencer’s jiving sounds like sloganeering set against lame attempts at hip-hop infusion. And lighter, groovier material like “Magical Colors” comes off watered down and devoid of the punch for which the band was known. The extra disc adds on the wealth of outtakes and remixes that were released in various forms after Acme’s release, but does little to redeem this decidedly mediocre album.

Acme was the beginning of the end for the Blues Explosion, if not literally than figuratively. They’d only eke out two more albums before going on extended hiatus. Neither Plastic Fang (2002) nor Damage (2004) were much better. It’s hard to believe that a band that once had “it” in spades suddenly lost that indefinable quality which pushed them to make some truly amazing music. Still, that’s the beauty of recorded music: once you capture it, it never fades.
Stephen Slaybaugh