Here’s an interesting one, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion Acme, from all the way back in the late twentieth century.
I fell for this band hard in 1995 when I saw them hit the stage like a comet in full-on percussive skinny sex god mode and blow the Beastie Boys off stage in Manchester*. I bought Orange the next time I found myself in a record shop with sufficient readies. I already knew Mr Spencer from his stint in Pussy Galore, Dial ‘M’ For Motherfucker being a real fave**, so I was primed and ready for doing a bit of adulation.
So in 1999 I found myself clutching a new copy of Acme, reading all the credits on the lengthy bus ride home, wondering what it would sound like and wishing it had better art work; I still do. I got it home, slapped it on and … found myself impressed but no more than that.
Eighteen years later, that’s pretty much where I still am.
Sure there’s plenty of that feral Tom cat struttin’ I’m very partial to, there are some great harmonies, some rusty barbed wire geetarin’ and, you can depend upon it, some brilliant drummin’. JSBX also add some interesting new sonic tools to their armoury as well, courtesy of a revolving cast of producers and co-producers such as Calvin Johnson, Dan the Automator and, on one track, Alec Empire. The band’s methodology was an interesting one, they laid down the basic tracks quickly with Steve Albini (mostly) and then shipped them off to get their producers’ takes on it and then played with the results. I like that they were so open to new ideas.
The benefits of this are some truly interesting sounds, check out the extraordinary ‘Talk About The Blues’ where the band seem to be covering four different genres simultaneously, it sounds like you ate too much cheese one night and fell asleep listening to a badly scratched and warped copy of Ill Communication. It’s a message about how the blues has mutated and changed beyond recognition with its odd minimal sounds and weirdball vocals, all over a selection of strange beats and a snippet of a blues lick – twenty first century heavy noises. Hell, the video even had Winona Ryder in it (sighs). I’m far less taken with the last track on the LP, ‘Attack’ produced by Alec Empire it is pretty much an, umm, attack on your ears and sounds a little like a hot rockin’ pub band being run over from the legs on up, by a steam roller … recorded at 33 1/3 and played at 78RPM. More tea vicar?
In contrast the loveliest noise on Acme*^ is the glorious hazy guitar line that opens ‘I Wanna Make It All Right’, like something Keith Richards laid down in ’70 and forgot all about until then. There’s a neat sense of something being, barely, suppressed throughout this track but only just – whether it is anger, sorrow, or as usual, lust or a heady mix of all of the above, who knows? but the end result is a real highlight.
Other tracks of excellence include the off-kilter melody of ‘Magical Colors’^^, another track which almost bares its’ teeth but doesn’t quite; the smooth-yet-concealing-a-middle-freak-out ‘Do You Wanna Get Heavy?’ with its’ lovely soul chorus and the wired country blues rocker ‘High Gear’. All of which hail from the first side of the LP, it’s pretty lopsided in my view.
I think what irks me a little here and stops me from enjoying it all perfectly isn’t the experimentation in sounds, it is the songwriting – which for whatever reason is a bit sub-par for a chunk of Acme. You can energetically pile up all the great new sounds and ideas to the ceiling but if the songs aren’t there to support it then you’ll struggle, which is what goes wrong here for me. Take the very forgettable ‘Blue Green Olga’, great title and a guest performance from Jill Cunniff^* and a promising dirty rawk n’ blues racket but there just isn’t enough of a song in there to hang it all on.
I accept that maybe the point is to groove to the noise in the minute and to get off on the rush of the sound, which can be fine live but not enough for repeat home listening. It’s a shame because despite some real tasty greasy greatness Acme feels like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion sold themselves a little short here. Dang! It’s an irritation because they feel at times like they could have been the single coolest band in the world but they didn’t quite get to crest that wave.
Acme could still do with a better cover though.
PS: Here’s my favourite JSBX song, from their Orange album, ladies and gentlemen, I give you, the fabulous, the tremendous, the fantasmagorically luminously awesome ‘Bellbottoms’:
*yup, they did them properly, I cannot remember a Goddamned thing about the Beasties from that night but I can remember every second of JSBX, they totally managed to eclipse my favourite band.
**as well as one of the best swearingest LP titles ever.
*^surely there should be a prize awarded for the loveliest noise on any given LP?
^^spelled wrong; pah! Americans!
^*from 1537 faves Luscious Jackson.