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Chaos, Refined

For more than a decade, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion has retained a basic punk-rock spirit while adding shape to its raw blend of pop styles.

April 14, 2002|NATALIE NICHOLS

A loud, rude sound blasts out the open door of the El Rey Theatre, spilling onto Wilshire Boulevard and mingling with the noise of cars and buses roaring past. It's sound-check time for New York punk-blues trio the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and singer-guitarist Spencer is messing around with his trademark theremin, a vintage electronic instrument.

"It can be louder in both of these," he tells the sound man, indicating the monitors at his feet. "Just let it rip."

Spencer, guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins have been letting rip with their raw blend of punk, garage, blues, funk and hip-hop for 11 years now. On "Plastic Fang," the band's first new collection in four years (due April 23 from Matador Records), its chaotic music is more refined than ever. But the group's style remains singularly gritty at a time when pop critics and fans have become more enamored of this kind of dirtier sound, from pop-punkers the Strokes to garage-blues duo the White Stripes to fuzz-rockers B.R.M.C.

"It's nice to hear rock bands with more of a punky vibe and style, like the Strokes," Simins says, sitting in the band's tour van on a side street near the theater. "The Strokes are more pop than we are, but when I hear them on the radio, rather than just that corporate grunge-sounding [stuff], I can relate. If it makes way for something more like what we are, that's great."

Slumped on a bench seat in the group's van, Spencer doesn't exactly look the devoted-dad type, with his extra-wide mutton-chop sideburns and creature-of-the-night pallor. But he is most interested in finding a toy store in hopes of locating some elusive plaything for his 4-year-old son with wife Cristina Martinez.

In the mid-'80s, he and Martinez were in the D.C.-to-New York noise-punk group Pussy Galore, in which Spencer began his abrasive/minimalist antics. After Pussy Galore broke up, Spencer formed the Blues Explosion in 1991 with Simins and Bauer. (Martinez sings with the band Boss Hog, of which Spencer is also a member.)

At first the Blues Explosion's music was as raw and anarchic as Pussy Galore's had been. But soon the trio grafted on some song structure (not to mention some funk), and 1993's "Extra Width," its first Matador release, got more attention, thanks to a video on MTV's weekly alt-rock showcase "120 Minutes."

The following year, "Orange" garnered critical raves. By the time 1996's "Now I Got Worry" and 1998's "Acme" were released, Matador had made its now-defunct distribution deal with Capitol Records, and the Blues Explosion was practically a major-label sellout by default. But not really.

Indeed, the group is no stranger to misconceptions. For example, despite its name, and the obvious inspiration of classic blues' naked spirit, it's a rock 'n' roll band, not a blues act.

"We're basically just a punk-rock band," Simins says. "Blues is an influence, and people [emphasize] it because of the name. We do like blues and are into the heritage of the blues, but that's just one aspect."

"Now it seems to me that there's more acceptance or greater respect," Spencer says of attitudes toward the Blues Explosion's style. Sept. 11 "put everything in perspective," he adds, deadpanning so flatly that it takes a minute to comprehend his wry tweaking of blues purists and pop culture's overuse of the attacks as a filter through which to view everything.

Indeed, what may turn off some listeners even more than the band's irreverent mangling of the blues is that its work has an archness that sounds like a total put-on to some ears. The presence of the squalling theremin alone is enough to raise suspicions of kitsch-fueled caricature.

Certainly there is humor behind the monster-movie theme in the song titles and artwork of "Plastic Fang." Yet there's nothing ironic about the funkiness of such tunes as the sexy gothic romp "She Said," the N'Awlins-swaggering "Hold On" or even the confessional, pulsating "Killer Wolf."

Blues and gospel motifs of sin and redemption play large in that tune as well as in such selections as "Mean Heart." Spencer's deep, soulful voice--an animal thing itself--matches the various elemental moods, morphing from an elastic wail to a low growl to a guttural scream.

Although "Plastic Fang" still has the rolling-jam spirit of earlier collections, the more consistent song structure makes it sound something like a young, 21st century Rolling Stones, a record that possibly could propel the Blues Explosion from cult jam to wider recognition.

"Anybody who wants to can join the party," Spencer says. "But I don't think we're gonna change what we do just to court" attention.

Indeed, none of the tinkering the Explosion has done from album to album has altered the core feeling of its music.

This time out, the trio wanted to indulge its fascination with rock history. The band welcomed producer Steve Jordan's suggestions of bringing in such guests as Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, who plays organ on "Hold On," and Dr. John, who, although a renowned pianist, gets back to his '50s session roots by contributing guitar to the same tune.

Having guest musicians who represent the R&B and funk strains of the Blues Explosion's interests also seems important to Bauer, who grows impatient with focusing on the blues. After all, he notes, "Plastic Fang" also bears the equally distinctive influence of early rocker Roy Buchanan's harmonic dissonance, not to mention the cleaner country stylings of Bakersfield-scene guitarists Don Rich and Roy Nichols.

Hmmm. A blend of country and blues? Smells like rock 'n' roll, indeed.

*

Natalie Nichols is a regular contributor to Calendar.

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