Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion- Orange

Here's a fun experiment: peruse your music library and dig out something you haven't listened to for years. Pop it in and give it a good listen. Then, fill out this questionnaire.

Album: Orange by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

How Long Has It Been Since You Last Listened To It (Approximately)??: At least three years.

Why Haven't You Listened To It For That Amount Of Time??: I'm not really sure how much slightly funky blues/punk you need in your life. For that matter, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion never really transcend what they are and what they always have been. Their albums are much more about sound and feel than they are about lasting impressions and memorable songs. To put it simply, Orange is good beer drinking music. It's an album stuffed with a thick two guitar attack mostly played in the mid-range, with riffs instead of definite melodies, set against an underrated and grooving drummer. Above it all swaggers Jon Spencer, the sort of performer who apes a specific rock idol (in his case, mostly Elvis) but you're never sure how much of it is a pose, a winking self conscious irony, and how much is sincere.

But this is probably not the point. Blues Explosion albums aren't meant to be thought about and examined. I guess this is why I haven't listened to it for years. Orange is (probably) their best album but it doesn't take itself seriously enough to deliver excellent songs and it's hard to really love the riffs and funky blues/punk stuff when you think the band might just be putting you on.

Do You Feel Differently About This Album Now Than You Did The Last Time You Listened To It??: Well, let's see now. I stumbled on the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion via Beck, who delivers a weird, out of nowhere (pre-fame) rap on the track 'Flavor' on Orange. I eventually bought Acme as well but traded it in to my local record store a few years ago. Because I didn't own nearly as many albums back then, when I first got Orange and Acme I used to listen to them quite a bit. It was one of those situations where you end up listening to a band over and over out of habit, smashing your head against a rock repeatedly in the hopes that it'll feel better the next time. Well, that's not being fair. Orange is pretty good for what it is, it's just that the entire output of this band is more of a curious branch on the indie rock family tree than anything else. I kept wanting this band's albums to be as good as the stuff I was concurrently discovering by Tortoise, Radiohead, and Pavement, but even judging them on their own terms, the John Spencer Blues Explosion are never truly great.

It is kind of funny to examine them in hindsight of the garage rock revival of the early 00's. It really must've burned their ass to see a bunch of upstarts do a similar thing to what they had been doing for over a decade without much success. Yes, there are a lot of differences between what the Blues Explosion does/did and what bands like the Hives, Strokes, etc. were doing, but ultimately I think it comes down to sincerity and classicism. At the heart of all of those "The" bands, even behind the aloof New York cool of The Strokes and the self-conscious foreign buffoonery of the Hives, was a true love of their craft as well as a fondness for garage rock/punk rock of the past. The Blues Explosion are arguably more "original" and interesting, but there is always a pretense about them, singing about fornication with "full grown women" and making their opening track about, uh, bell bottoms, complete with a breakdown where Spencer intones "thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, but right now I'd like to tell you about the most fabulous....most groovy....bell bottoms" in his best Elvis showman voice.

So, do I feel differently about Orange?? I guess I do. I don't like it as much as I used to and my favorite song off it is the closing instrumental 'Greyhound', which I think is as much indicative of how irritating Jon Spencer as a vocalist can be (is it just me, or is his shtick on 'Blues X Man' far more pretentious and affected than anything Roger Waters ever put out??) as it is how much I love the sound/riffs part of this band way more than the songs and band itself. I suppose a lot of other people must too, because the Blues Explosion have a surprising amount of remixes for a--yes I'm going to use this description again--slightly funky punk/blues band. Your best bet is probably to watch a few of their videos on YouTube and decide if this band is worth your time/money from there. Still, Orange is good for what it's trying to be, and is arguably their best release.

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