The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Now I Got Worry and Controversial Negro
Major Domo

We’ve been over the high and lows of the Blues Explosion before, and though even their once explosive live show has fizzled recently, the next segment of Major Domo’s reissue campaign affords the chance to once again appreciate the band in its prime. It’s a little harder to fathom now, but there was a time when the band seemed to have tapped into rock & roll’s very mainline. When Spencer emitted a “Blues Explosion!” howl, it wasn’t a touch of schmaltzy showmanship, but rather a visceral voicing of a primal feeling rooted somewhere deep down in his gut. That he and his soul brothers rubbed some people the wrong way only proved that the noisy racket he was divining was indeed close to the source. No, this wasn’t the blues, but neither was it some Slowhand bullshit. Like the luminaries with which Spencer was keeping company, this was the real deal, jack.

Now I Got Worry, the Blues Explosion’s fourth “proper” album, came on the heels of Orange, the band’s biggest commercial (and artistic) success. Originally released in 1996, it wasn’t, by all accounts, what the label (Matador) was hoping for. It was a tough nut to crack, with the kind of grooves that made up Orange now buried in a big, greasy hairball of fuzz. Hell, it begins with a scream—not a howl of pleasure, but a piercing warped caterwaul. It was a sort of return to the Crypt style of their recent past, only now (as this remastered edition makes more wonderfully clear) bolstered by a greater fidelity that put every utterance and burst of guitar in sharp relief—even when crusted with grit or emitted from a crappy transistor amp (check “Hot Shot”).

But as easy as it would be to depict Now I Got Worry as some kind of return to noise, it’s much more nuanced (and complicated). “Wail” is the sort of jabbing, groove blister that’s marked the Blues Explosion’s best stuff, as is the squawking “2 Kindsa Love.” But this album is distinguished by the surprises—with several uppercuts coming in just one song at times.“Can’t Stop” is carved from a rocksteady beat and a fuzzy riff, but the meandering piano tinkling makes it, as does Spencer’s command to “throw (your) hands in the air and kiss my ass ’cause your girlfriend still loves me.” And “Firefly Child” seems to continuously turn itself inside out, revealing a guitar lick within another within another within another.

Of course for this reissue, we also get a shitload of extras, nearly all of which have (surprisingly) never seen the light of day before. “Cool Vee” reflects the influence of tourmates the Beastie Boys, while “Yellow Eyes” is a barnburner of the fieriest order. Spencer’s wife and Boss Hog boss Cristina Martinez turns up on “Turn Up Greene,” which shows just how out-there the band could get during this period. It’s hard to tell if the radio ads that end the volume are real, but then even such hyperbole isn’t such a stretch.

Controversial Negro was originally issued as a promo LP by Matador and then released in Japan commercially on CD. The Matador version featured a picture of Mick Jagger, but the reissue goes with the unoffending Japanese cover. The album was recorded live in 1996 at the Hotel Congress by Jim Waters, who had just finished engineering Now I Got Worry. I could tell you something like, “This record captures the band at their most wild and woolly,” or that “In order to experience JSBX, you need to hear them live and this is the next best thing.” But that doesn’t really do the damn thing or the band justice. No, this is rock & roll alive and well before it became commodified for Cadillac and Volkswagen. When Spencer shouts, “I’m talking about fucking!” obviously he means it, man, but he’s also talking about the voodoo he’s attempting to conjure (and succeeding). By the time he and the band get to Worry’s “Sticky,” they’ve blown a gasket several miles back and are running on pure sweat and gusto. There’s a bonus here too: five more songs from the same show and another 10 cuts (including a killer version of “Greyhound”) from a show recorded two years earlier. It’s almost overkill, making the album the kind of thing that makes your teeth ache it’s so good. Again, this was a band at a sold-their-souls level, capable of channeling unique sounds both devilish and godly through their amps. But hell, don’t take my word for it.
Stephen Slaybaugh