With their down and dirty brand of punk/garage blues, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion burst on to the New York City scene in the early ’90s with the force of a detonation.
Dirty Shirt Rock’n’Roll: The First Ten Years covers their six studio albums from eponymous debut in 1992 to 2002’s Plastic Fang, but does not include songs from their last album Damage in 2004, when the band shortened its name to just Blues Explosion.
This excellent 22-track compilation album shows how the band’s subversively discordant twist on traditional rhythm and blues developed later into more experimental sounds without losing their visceral directness. It’s easy to see how their Molotov cocktail of the anarchic aggression of punk and the stripped-down rawness of garage rock with the primal appeal of blues was such a big influence on bands like The White Stripes, who have had much more commercial success.
Their lyrics may not be the most subtle or thought-provoking but the often overtly sexual content is sometimes very funny – JSBE have never taken themselves too seriously. Centre of attention of course is fireball front man Spencer, screaming and screeching, yelling and yelping, with unpredictable charisma. But he is backed by the controlled raucousness of guitarist Judah Bauer and powerhouse drumming of Russell Simins in a deceptively tight trio which belies their jamming sound.
The tone is set with opener Chicken Dog, taken from JSBE’s first album: while Spencer howls maniacally, the late great soul singer Rufus Thomas takes lead vocals in this crazy alternative to ’60s dance songs like his own Walking The Dog. The more temperate Magical Colors is a tender love ballad reminiscent of a Rolling Stones-style soulful blues song, with some nice Hammond organ in the background.
Money Rock’n’Roll is chock full of heavy rock’n’roll riffs, while in Love Ain’t On The Run Spencer deepens his vocal style to convey a strutting sexuality and in Blues X Man he sounds like John Lee Hooker on crack cocaine. Bellbottoms features a rare strings accompaniment, contrasting with the hard and fast thrusting of History Of Sex and the in yer face rap of Fuck Shit Up (a live cover of a Dub Narcotic Sound System song).
The funkiness of Leave Me Alone So I Can Rock Again gives way to the old-style blues instrumentation of slide guitar and harmonica in Shake ‘Em On Down, while in Hell Spencer does a psychotic impersonation of Bo Diddley. Wail, the closest JSBE have ever come to a hit single, is, as the title suggests, essentially an extended primal scream, with a driving rock groove.
Talk About The Blues is an experimental dub track taking the blues to places it has never been before, while Beck guests as singer on the remixed Flavor. The album closes with the single edit of She Said, in which a more conventional song structure is used to tell a characteristically lurid tale of nuns on heat chasing a werewolf/vampire.
Although the band has not officially dissolved, no new studio album has been released in the last six years, during which time Spencer has been concentrating on his garage rockabilly group Heavy Trash. So it seems what was once a side project has moved centre stage. Hopefully the Blues Explosion will be back with a bang sometime soon. In the meantime we can savour some of the highlights from their first decade.