Yeah, You Sure Do Got Worry

After listening to "Chicken Dog," a collaboration between Sun and Stax

hitmaker Rufus Thomas and Jon Spencer's Blues Explosion, and then

returning to Thomas' off-the-cuff comment before the song begins--"I know

where I'm goin' now"--one's liable respond, "Yeah, straight to the bank

after an easy day's work."

To be sure, Thomas' contribution to Now I Got Worry is the album's

greatest moment. The title is no doubt fitting. Thomas made his name

with animal numbers such as "Bear Cat," "Tiger Man," "Walking the Dog,"

and "The Funky Chicken." Moreover, just as the term chicken dog suggests

one thing masquerading as another (that is, poultry as hot dog), the name

Blues Explosion suggests a blues combo that is actually its own mutation

of rock and roll, blues, punk, soul, and other elements. In "Chicken

Dog," Thomas' greasy voice stirs up Spencer's gravelly mixture

beautifully. The problem is that there is precious little of Thomas here.

When you realize that he came all the way down to the studio to record

just one verse (granted the song's only verse), it seems a waste of what

the singer has to offer. If Thomas penned that one and only verse, you

have to hope that Spencer at least pleaded with him to write more, or

offered to conjure up more himself. Then again, Spencer may have

preferred just a single verse. Theoretically, one set of words that's not

even repeated would fit in well with the Blues Explosion's lanky, two-

guitar-no-bass concoction. Whatever the song's origins, its final form

underscores Spencer's image as scavenger, picking sinewy bits from here

and there, grabbing sometimes only the skin of a form to fulfill his

musical appetite. In the past, however, Spencer has scavenged with a

mission. On Now I Got Worry, his vision has blurred and the result

is a sloppy album.

It's a shame for Spencer to lose focus now. Because Now I Got

Worry is the first joint Matador-Capitol Records release, it has

already received more attention than any of Spencer's earlier, better

albums. When he produced his best work to date with Orange in

1994, it appeared that Spencer may have been shooting for the title of

rock and roll's August Wilson. Playwright Wilson is writing one work about

the African-American experience for every decade of this century.

Similarly, Spencer seemed to explore a different decade in rock and roll

with every album. Crypt Style (most of which appeared in the U.S.

as a self-titled album on Caroline) introduced the band and their warped

take on rock and roll's early days. On Extra Width, Spencer made

his first foray into '70s soul. He continued that venture on

Orange, but brought his exploration up to the late '70s and early

'80s with bits dedicated to the original days of scratching and

freestyling. Along the way, he and the Blues Explosion (Judah Bauer on

guitar, Russell Simins on drums) made minor diversions. Extra

Width was followed by a live Australian release called Mo'

Width, and several songs from Orange were given new treatments

on the Experimental Remixes EP.

Then earlier this year, Spencer recorded an album with Mississippi

bluesman R.L. Burnside. That record, A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, is a

spontaneous document of an afternoon jam session recorded by the Blues

Explosion and Burnside at R.L.'s cabin in the woods. Appropriately, it's

a less than polished album, featuring mistakes, howling, and ribald

story-telling from Burnside. Who knows if that session in February

inspired Spencer's less than crafty work on Now I Got Worry. At

least a few fans, however, assessed A Ass Pocket of Whiskey as

Spencer's dive into the real blues item, and expected that after that trip

he would return to his own manic and motley ways with the purpose that he

demonstrated on earlier releases.

While his purpose on Now I Got Worry is less evident, the album

does have its moments. "Chicken Dog," of course, is one, as is the song

that follows it, "Rocketship." That song contains plenty of understated

attitude in addition to a cool, quiet slide guitar. Most importantly,

"Rocketship" sounds as if the band has a plan in mind, not as if they just

accidently got the song on tape. "Eyeballin'" exhibits Spencer's diverse

musical interests, as he cops a lyric and title from the Stones and the

Minuteman in the span of just seconds ("Telephone ringin'--who's that

hollerin' on the line? Pick it up! Paranoid time."). "Can't Stop"

contains the album's best shameless self- promotion when its saloon piano

drops out from Simins's hip hop beat and Spencer drawls out "This is the

part of the record where I'd like everybody to stand up and throw their

hands in the air, and kiss my ass, 'cause your girlfriend still

loves me!" I may be the one of the few folks who thinks this album could

use more of Spencer's usual self-promotion. Such shouts are less claims

of vanity than they are nods to showmen like James Brown and to hip-hop

boasting.

But most of Now I Got Worry's 16 tracks run together as a string of

one-offs. The Blues Explosion's cover of Dub Narcotic's "Fuck Shit Up"

isn't fucked up in any good sense. Rather it's a junior high

schoolish recording with implied snickering at the F word. Sometimes it

feels as if Now I Got Worry simply contains too much to wade

through to get the fine bits. For example, it takes a good two and half

minutes to reach the juicy line in "Can't Stop." Meanwhile, "Wail" finds

the band retreading its own guitar riff from "Support-A-Man" on their

first album.

It's hard to dismiss the feeling that Now I Got Worry was thrown

together like one of Spencer's extra EPs. Just as Mo' Width and

Experimental Remixes followed on the heels of Extra Width

and Orange, this record comes as a lackluster bonus after A Ass

Pocket of Whiskey. I hate to appear snide or cut in any appraisal, but

Now I Got Worry feels like a waste of time. Not only of the time

of one-verse Rufus Thomas, but also that of Spencer, because he's not

trying. Not trying is a special sin in the world of the JSBX, because

Spencer and his band have made their name by overtrying-- that is,

through their sincere brand of exaggerated showmanship that includes the

word "blues" in their name, their past cataloging of the history of rock

and roll, and their white hot live shows. Unfortunately if the record is

a waste of time for those who recorded it, it's got to be the same for the

listener.