On The Record: The Blues Are (Were?) Number One!
I’m tired of writing about Vampire Weekend, the Black Kids and Jay Reatard. I don’t think I have another “sky is falling/ In Rainbows/ the music industry is a charred, deserted metropolis overrun with zombies” piece in me. This is primarily because I have spent roughly the entire month of October writing about only those two things, thanks to the CMJ Music Marathon and Radiohead’s Rainbows strategy (also because I am afraid of zombies).
I’ve gone on and on about “blog buzz” and “hype.” I’ve speculated about the future of major labels and the industry and all that jazz, ad infinitum. I’ve spoken to more “industry experts” and “spokespeople close to the band” than I care to think about. And frankly, I’m exhausted by it. This week, I wanna talk about something that couldn’t possibly be further removed from all of that forward-thinking crap. I wanna talk about something awesome and insane and perhaps even a bit stupid — something that’s not relevant in any capacity, just because I feel like I’ve earned it.
This week, I wanna talk about the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
See, if you weren’t aware, the Blues Explosion were, at one point, number one. This is something Jon Spencer made abundantly clear, whether it be live or on tracks like “Flavor” (from 1994’s truly excellent Orange), in which he declared himself “the number-one blues singer in the country” (despite the fact that he sung more like an Elvis impersonator at this juncture) and then spent a solid minute rattling off all the places in which his band is “number one,” a list that included the following cities: Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Detroit; Austin, Texas; Houston; Dallas; San Francisco; Los Angeles; Portland, Oregon; Seattle; Vancouver, British Columbia; New York; Kansas City, Missouri; Oklahoma City; and Jackson, Mississippi.
Of course, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion are no longer number one. They might not even be the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion anymore, having dropped Spencer’s name from the title for their last studio album, 2004’s Damage. Spencer has since released two albums with Heavy Trash, his band with guitarist Matt Verta-Ray, and has appeared on several other artists’ records. The Blues Explosion’s Web site hasn’t been updated since December 27, 2005. And their drummer — the indomitable Russell Simins — is now producing tracks for prepubescent rockers the Tiny Masters of Today.
This is probably just natural progression. Very few bands stay on top forever, particularly ones as polarizing and, well, somewhat hokey as the Blues Explosion. But they had a good run, starting with 1993’s fiery and funky Extra Width, peaking with Orange, then tapering off with ’96’s Now I Got Worry, when they decided to try being an actual blues band. In fact, if you look at them during the Orange era, you could make the argument that they were the pre-eminent band in NYC, if not one of the coolest indie-rock acts in the world.
It’s difficult to imagine today, but back in 1994, Orange was a very “now” record. There was the obsession with ’70s funk and soul (the same territory the Beasties were mining with all things Grand Royal); the lo-fi production; the literally phoned-in guest appearance by Beck; the collaborations with graphic designer Mike Mills; the brief experiments with electronics; and the subsequent remix album (1995’s Experimental Remixes), which featured contributions from Moby and the GZA. The album landed at #16 on The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop critics poll in 1994 ahead of Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy and Nas’ Illmatic. It very clearly represented the Blues Explosion’s moment, the point at which they were at the height of their abilities, when they were at their most powerful, and when they seemed important and informed.
And here’s where things get difficult for me. Because no matter how hard I try, I cannot experience Orange in a vacuum. Though it was released 13 years ago this week (there’s the tie-in!), I listen to the album now and cannot help but think what the reaction would be if the Blues Explosion were some band like the Black Kids or Vampire Weekend. And then I realize that I probably have a problem.
It’s not like the concept of “hype” didn’t exist during the Blues Explosion’s heyday — in 1991, Spin famously reviewed an advance cassette version of Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted nearly a year before the album hit stores, in an attempt to capitalize on the buzz the band was creating — it just wasn’t as pervasive back then as it is today. There’s no way it could be.
If anything, blogs have perfected the art of hype, so much so that we now get acts like the Black Kids (I know I keep singling them out, and I don’t mean to … they just keep popping into my head, which is probably more of a comment on the era we live in than anything else), who put four songs on their MySpace page in August, got some good buzz thanks to a Pitchfork podcast and a Zane Lowe BBC broadcast in September, and rode that to a string of sold-out CMJ shows and a deal with Almost Gold Records in October. This is not the way things are supposed to happen, except it is how it happens, over and over again, so much so that there’s even a backlash now — more against the system than the band itself — one that was rather eloquently summed up/ forwarded by Idolator’s Jess Harvell earlier this week.
The problem seems to be that we’re propping up a whole host of bands too early, giving them their moment before they’re even remotely ready for it. In my opinion, acts like the Arcade Fire and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah scuffled with album #2 because they were given too much, too soon. You’ve gotta release a Crypt Style before you can graduate to an Orange.
Then again, maybe the whole idea of Orange is becoming extinct right along with the band that made it. Bands don’t have careers anymore … their moment could actually be a MySpace-only EP, followed by a couple of packed showcase gigs at CMJ or South by Southwest and then the inevitable backlash that brings them tumbling down. The industry cannot continue to exist this way, yet, seemingly, it’s where we’re headed, so much so that even when I set out to write a column about the Blues Explosion, it always comes back to indefinable terms like “blog buzz” and “hype” and the pallor of the record business.
Oh, and by the way, the Blues Explosion aren’t dead. On Tuesday, they released Jukebox Explosion, a collection of the delightfully raw 45s they started releasing way back in 1992 on In the Red Records. The cover of the album shows the reanimated corpses of the band tossing dirt into an open grave, which is packed with records by Hole, Sebadoh and Jane’s Addiction (the sentiment contained is fairly clear: Spencer and company are survivors). The music contained within is blistering, raucous and raw. Most of the songs don’t last longer than two minutes. And to the best of my knowledge, none of it has leaked to the Internet, which is also a pretty solid commentary on where we’re at.
B-Sides: Other Stories I’m Following This Week
Paul Banks’ revenge! Interpol bust up file-sharing site OiNK. Carlos D strokes Snidely Whiplash mustache, cackling demonically (see “Music File-Sharing Site OiNK Shut Down Following Criminal Investigation” ).
Lance Bass: Formerly closeted cosmonaut-in-training, ultimate team player (see “Lance Bass Says He Hid Sexuality For Fear Of Dooming ’NSYNC’s Career” ).
Funny, I always pictured Kid Rock as more of a Huddle House kind of guy (see “Kid Rock Arrested For Assault After Waffle House Scuffle” ).
Questions? Concerns? Comments? Hit me up at BTTS@MTVStaff.com.