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The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - Freedom Tower (Mom + Pop)

24 March 2015

As a child of the 1990’s, I realize that we are probably an intolerable lot in music conversations. Just like those assholes who grew up in the late-sixties, we blather on about how great things used to be, how they’ll ‘never be the same’, or how ‘you had to be there’. I bet that’s pretty fucking annoying to hear after awhile. Nevertheless, it’s also hard not to recognize how great that decade was. Whatever your favorite band was, they were probably pretty cool. It seemed like everywhere you looked there was another great band popping up. Yet, even inside an era of ‘cool’, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion was a reference saved for only the biggest music geeks. If you had a friend that was into JSBX, they were the one you actually listened to. This was the person that would have been listening to the Flamin’ Groovies in the sixties, or Wire a decade later.

If you don’t know about Jon Spencer and his Blues Explosion already, you’d better call somebody. Nevertheless, let’s go through the expository motions for the unfortunately uninformed. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is a rock trio, formed in 1991 and based in New York City. The band is Judah Bauer on guitar, backing vocals, harmonica and occasional lead vocals, Russell Simins on drums and Jon Spencer on vocals, guitar and theremin. Their musical style is all over the place, but undeniably rock & roll, including some flourishes of punk, blues, garage, rockabilly, soul, noise rock, rhythm and blues and hip hop. They have released nine official studio albums, collaborative records with Dub Narcotic Sound System and R.L. Burnside as well as numerous singles, out-take albums, compilations, remix albums and, in 2010, a series of expanded reissues. JSBX have played with nearly everyone along the way, including Elliott Smith, Beck, Solomon Burke, Steve Albini, Martina Topley-Bird and Ad Rock of the Beastie Boys.

After taking a hiatus in the first decade of the new century, Spencer & Co came back together for the recording of 2012’s Meat & Bone and announced their re-entry to the rock atmosphere at the Jeff Magnum-curated ATP show in London that year. That record was standing proof that the good don’t always die young and some can even rock through the ages. Now, the explosion have returned with a collection of odes to their New York home, Freedom Tower – No Wave Dance Party 2015 on Mom + Pop Records. And yes, they are still kicking your favorite band’s ass across the stage.

The last five or so years have been littered with 90’s-era reunions. A lot of them have been extremely successful largely because they had nothing whatsoever to do with the jaded money-grab reunion tour. When it is done well, a reunion sounds like the band never really stopped playing together. They are excited about being in the room together and genuinely want to kick ass more than they ever did before. Most recently, we got ourselves an excellent little record from Sleater-Kinney that proves this point quite well. JSBX joins that grouping of the well-considered rerun precisely because they are doing what they’ve always done; proving that rock music will never die. The central conceit of the Explosion has always been taking old fashioned rock music and making something exciting with a little bit of brains and a whole lot of balls.

It’s a variation on what I’ve heard Jack White say about his vision for the White Stripes, “We wanted to play the blues and convince the hipsters it was something else.” Of course, JSBX has never been even that thinly veiled. This is hot rod rock and if the hip crowd dig it, good for them. Freedom Tower finds the band mining that same stream. These are tight jams that seems just on the verge of falling completely apart. Over the course of time, the trio have pulled the reigns in slightly, focusing more on melody and a defined groove (“Bellevue Baby” even introduces us to…get ready for it…vocal effects). This isn’t to say the music is without edge. There are still plenty of hoots and hollers to keep pants tight for old school JSBX fans. What we have now is maybe a slightly more palatable formula for your soundtrack to the apocalypse. The only thing predictable about this album is the band’s unpredictability. The mission statement album opener “Funeral” says it all.

“Groove: the mathematical equation to formulate this new wave.”
-Jon Spencer, “Funeral”

Freedom Tower is being billed as an album about New York City. I don’t know that I necessarily buy it as such. There isn’t anything on this record that I would call definitively ‘New York’. At the very least, the songs will play just as well in Detroit, Raleigh, and Tucson as they will Manhattan. Instead, I feel that this record is more about the Explosion thinking about music and their own place in it. Spencer seems to be defining himself throughout the record and the introduction to “Tales of Old New York” edits interview snippets together that tackle the subject directly. As a result, the album is actually a lot more personal than the press releases will lead you to believe and it starts a discussion that has been two decades in the making. Namely, why aren’t we name dropping the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion during every conversation that slobbers on about the ‘most influential bands of their generation’?

Past all of the modern day critical rewrites positioning groups like Pavement and Morphine as the gold standard of music, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion has avoided that kind of whitewashing. What makes them important today is what made them important two decades ago. There is still an element of danger about their music; danger in its simplicity. Good music isn’t defined by some pre-conceived list of rules about creativity. Good music is really just having a good time to a beat. That’s all is has to be. Freedom Tower is a record you need to hear because it proves the golden rule of rock music. Just play your balls off and the ass will follow.