It's hard to predict who will be happier with his soon-to-be-released album, Jon
Spencer's supporters or his detractors.
There on the disc, Acme, due out Tuesday (Oct. 20), buried down in the greasy,
hip-hop soul of the fifth track,
HREF="http://www.addict.com/music/The_Jon_Spencer_Blues_Explosion/Talk_About_T he_Blues.ram">"Talk About The Blues"
he_Blues.ram">"Talk About The Blues"(RealAudio excerpt), Spencer lays out
plain and simple what both camps have long argued: "I don't play no blues!" Spencer
shouts. "I play rock 'n' roll!"
Precisely what sort of music the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion -- who include
singer/guitarist Spencer, guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins -- have
been whipping up for five albums now is an issue for debate in some circles.
Fans call it straight-up, showmanship rock 'n' roll, while foes claim that it's a shallow
appropriation of a sacred form for Spencer's own indie-punk needs.
"Talk About The Blues" was actually spawned by an interview Spencer did earlier this
year for a Rolling Stone article on traditional blues. (The lyric quoted above was
nabbed from Mississippi Fred McDowell's 1969 blues album I Don't Play No Rock 'N'
Roll.) But it was more broadly inspired by the suspicious questions about how he
uses the art form that have dogged him throughout the band's seven-year career.
"You gotta give some people a break for asking," Spencer, 33, said recently from the
New York apartment he shares with his wife, Cristina Martinez, leader of the sludgy
rock-band Boss Hog. "Definitely, there's an influence of blues in what we do, and we did
that record [A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey (1996)] with [Mississippi bluesman] R.L.
Burnside. It's part of what we do. But it's not the end of it, it's not the whole thing."
On Acme, the band underscores its refusal to be mistakenly pegged as a blues
outfit with the diverse cadre of producers it brought on for the project: indie-rock mainstay
Calvin Johnson twisted the knobs for the opening
"Calvin"(RealAudio excerpt), while heavy man Steve Albini (Nirvana) cut the
Santa Claus romp "Heavy Duty" and modern hip-hop DJ Dan "The Automator"
Nakamura (Dr. Octagon) spliced tape on "Talk About The Blues," just to name a few.
With all those cooks in the Blues Explosion kitchen, the band manages to pull off a
cohesive album by relying on what it does best. Spencer still fills his songs with overly
dramatic, self-referential boasts and pleas, while Simins and Bauer grind out slippery
grooves behind him.
Overseeing the whole affair as executive producer was veteran songwriter ("Shake A
Tail Feather") and producer Andre Williams, whom Spencer credits with encouraging
Acme's smooth, good-time flow. Unlike its skittish predecessor, Now I Got
Worry (1996), the new album "is all hanging in the same place," Spencer said.
"Andre [Williams] brightened everyone's spirits and made us remember why we were
doing it in the first place, just to have a good time," Spencer said. "Andre was a real
inspiration. He can't stop talking. When he walks into the room, it's like 'Bam!' -- a jolt of
While some have posited that the Blues Explosion's first three albums each seem to
interpret a decade of American music -- Crypt Style (1992) takes on '50s
rockabilly, Extra Width (1993) moves from the late '60s into '70s blaxploitation and
Orange (1994) brings it all up to the '80s with a touch of early hip-hop -- Spencer
said no overarching scheme has emerged for any of his albums until they were nearly
complete, including Acme.
"We worked on this record, not non-stop, but for six months," he said. "It wasn't until May
or June that we really started to get an idea of what the album was going to be. It then
began to take shape as a more soulful, more mellow record. At the same time that we
wanted to get a new kind of sound, we also wanted to make a new kind of feeling for the
record. So we sort-of shied away from the more frantic, crazy, all-out rocking stuff, the
more typical Blues Explosion material."
Bruce Watson, the in-house engineer and producer for Mississippi-based blues-label Fat
Possum who recorded A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey, said that no one should be
confused about the Blues Explosion's bottom line, even if, after all these years, they are
still confounded by the name.
"Whatever you're doing, someone's going to have a hang-up about it somewhere in this
world," Watson said. "Who cares? They're a great rock 'n' roll band. If they wanted to call
themselves Mud, it'd be fine. Even when they did stuff with R.L. [Burnside], they never
even tried to be a blues band at all. They never made that pretense -- besides Jon [Spencer]
yelling out the band's name in every song."
Occasionally, Spencer reckons that maybe if he just named his outfit something else, his
naysayers would have less to gripe about.
But then again, maybe not.
"Even if we weren't Blues Explosion, there's still a lot of crazy, over-the-top elements in
our music," he said. "It's pretty out-there. And some people just don't get it, or maybe
they're frustrated by it."