The cover of the new Jon Spencer Blues Explosion album has three images on it. One is a sketch of a fearful, wide-eyed woman, another a cartoon picture of a werewolf, while dividing the two is a row of teeth, taken from an old magazine ad for a kids’ vampire kit.
The combination of these three and the title of the album, Plastic Fang, capture what the JSBX are all about here, a mix of cheeky childhood humour and comic book grotesquerie is underpinned by real horror. It’s all about mixing it up, the band’s inimitable sound being a fusion of blues, punk, funk, Elvis-style crooning and good old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll. In PlasticFang, we have the fight between the werewolf of rock ‘n’ roll, and Spencer, the silent stranger with the silver bullet, the loner bitten by the lycanthrope and out for revenge. So, does the conflict between man and beast create great things?
Well, not really. The problem is that the rock ‘n’ roll monster is too strong, and the hunter simply never has a chance. Sweet’n’Sour provides a great pulsating opener, but for the most part after that, it’s rock ‘n’roll, but we don’t really like it. The sound is far too aggressive, the guitars grinding and roaring, Spencer howling as the beast takes over his soul. It’s sound like they’re all having a great time, but for the listener it’s all too close to chaotic noise.
The album’s highlights undoubtedly are when we see the more vulnerable side of the band. Mother Nature aside, this difference is detectable on the tracks where the band collaborate with guest artists. It’s as if, when they have to make music with other people, the band realise that maybe they should tone it down a bit. And that slightly more restrained sound is very much what saves the album.
Elliott Smith adds vocals, plus a definite tenderness, to Tore Up and Broke, while Dr John and Funkadelic‘s Bernie Worrell jam on the excellent Hold On, arguably the best track on the album.
While die-hard JSBX fans may well love every second of this, for the rest of us Plastic Fang is very much a Jekyll and Hyde experience. But, if you can tolerate that noisy, rampaging Mr Hyde, the time with the more sensitive Jekyll is really rather enjoyable.