Even by their frontman Jon Spencer’s own admission, the Blues Explosion were never really a blues group, and anyone picking up one of their albums expecting some sort of John Lee Hooker tribute were likely to be very surprised. He conceded some tangential influence from the blues when Clash spoke to Spencer in 2012, before hitting the nail on the head and admitting that they were simply playing rock ‘n’ roll – the kind of rock ‘n’ roll that had Fifties parents scared to death of teenage rebellion.
But a Jon Spencer solo record after years of fronting the Blues Explosion and Pussy Galore? Surely not some wistful, quiet folksy musings by Spencer with a solo guitar and a notebook full of scrawled lyrics concerning themselves with regret, missed opportunity and absent lovers?
Fortunately not. Spencer may have let the Blues Explosion, well, explode, but the raw, primal impulse that has threaded its way through his entire career hasn’t diminished one bit. The emphatic, insistent megaphone vocals are still there, Spencer still sounding like the over-amped subway beat poet preacher that you don’t know whether to listen to intently or change trains to avoid; the fuzzed-up, fucked-up guitar chaos is still there in all its infectious, riff-laden glory. And the energy, that fiery, unstoppable, compelling energy that Spencer has always generated is just as prominent as it ever was.
‘Spencer Sings The Hits!’ isn’t, however, just a JSBX pastiche. Bassist and keyboard player Sam Coomes adds squelchy synths that act as a counterweight to Spencer’s guitar on standout tracks like the stop-start ‘Fake’ and the sinewy strut of ‘Time 2 Be Bad’ and drummer Mike Gard (aka M. SORD) keeps these tracks moving forward, never once letting them slip into the hot mess they could easily become. Elsewhere, the urgent ‘Beetle Boots’ is a call to arms for the art of rocking out, while the irrepressible ‘Wilderness’ celebrates the joyousness of noise with a line celebrating everything Spencer everything has ever done or been – “rockabilly-disco-punk-soul-trousers with flares”.
Spencer has always had a penchant for these sort of funny, irreverent lyrics and it’s often all too easy to throw out songs like ‘Do The Trash Can’ – with metal percussion that’s a lot like Animal from The Muppets drumming on the trash can lid of Sesame Street’s Oscar The Grouch – as sloppy, stoopid affairs.
The truth is that playing this way takes a shitload of practice, and these songs are as focussed, refined and honed as anything Spencer has ever done, yielding some of his most infectious guitar lines and arguably some of the finest tracks of his lengthy career.
Words: Mat Smith
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