album // Damage
2004's Damage found (the Jon
Spencer) Blues Explosion – the trio
of Spencer, Judah Bauer and Russell Simins
– hooking up with a variety of producers, the effect of which
was unfortunately to create a somewhat uneven album. The revolving
cast members and multiple producers are a significant contributor
to Damage's patchy quality, but listen hard enough and
there's probably something for most people here. The album was supported
by three exceptional singles, the double A-side of 'Burn It Off'
and 'Fed Up And Low Down', 'Hot Gossip' (with Public Enemy's Chuck
D) and 'Crunchy'.
The core of the album, and in many ways the best
tracks here, were produced by Steve Jordan, with whom the band had
worked on Damage's predecessor, Plastic Fang.
Jordan's knowledge of the blues as a musician (including a stint
as drummer for The Blues Brothers) and a producer (for the likes
of Keith Richards) is here responsible for Blues Explosion delivering
some of their most impressive tracks. 'Mars, Arizona' is case in
point. The mixture of Spencer's rambling, macho megaphone vocal
and pulsing synth, frantic drumming as well as some wild grinding
guitar marks this out as one of the album's spectacularly loud and
forceful highlights, and is certainly among the band's most trimumphant
The inchoate 'Rattling' (another of the Steve Jordan
tracks) feels like extracts from a painstakingly-assembled studio
jam stitched together with a dub aesthetic. I have no doubt that
it's very clever, but it feels a bit like filler to me rather than
a Can-style edit. Mercifully, the album's closing
track, the sludgy 'Blowing My Mind', actually restores some semblance
of a beat (Simins is credited with 'cardboard box' percussion on
'Rattling') and some of Bauer's sweetest, frazzled guitar. Walter
Sear contributes spatial Moog and Spencer delivers one of his best,
pining vocals. It may not be a patch on something like 'Mars, Arizona'
but it at least feels like it has a sense of the direction it wants
to head off into.
The album's title track was produced by Simins and
sometime They Might Be Giants and Tiny Masters Of Today
producers Elegant Too (Chris Maxwell and Phil Hernandez). The result
is a low-slung number with one of the heaviest beats ever committed
to tape. 'Can you dig my band?' yells Spencer just before
that beat kicks in. Later in the track the beat gets scratched and
chopped into distorted junglist messiness. If the track's first
half had been allowed to continue in its bluesy hip-hop heaviness
it wouldn't feel so much like a short stop-gap before allowing 'Burn
It Off' to blaze its fiery trail through proceedings.
'Spoiled' is one of two tracks produced by David
Holmes and featuring former Tricky collaborator Martina Topley-Bird
on vocals. By 2004, Holmes' days as a house and techno producer
were somewhere way back in the dim and distant acid past. Both 'Spoiled'
and 'You Been My Baby' were mixed by Hugo Nicolson, who worked on
Primal Scream's watershed Screamadelica album. Consequently,
the two tracks have a stoned, wandering blues quality to them, 'Spoiled'
featuring beatnik percussion (listed as 'lambs' testicles, sharks'
teeth and lambs' toenails') from Pete Locket and Topley-Bird sensually
wailing in and out of focus. 'You Been My Baby' is heavier but retains
a druggy quality, featuring one of Spencer's most anguished, desperate
(but slightly ridiculous) vocal. Neither track is among the best
here, and one can only wonder how these songs would have turned
out under Steve Jordan's care.
One of the album's odd triumphs is the instrumental
'Rivals', which sounds about forty years too late, like a more frantic
Booker T & The MGs, with horns from Scott Zillitto, Matt Kelly
and Will Hoffman. It certainly doesn't feel like a Blues Explosion
number, but its urgency is a welcome addition to the album. 'Rivals'
was produced by Jesse Wallace, who also adds dirty synths to the
track. At times it feels like this could develop into some sort
of Contortions-style punk freakout, but it stays more on the side
of Elvis's TV specials from the Seventies instead. For some skronking
sax from head Contortion James Chance, you need 'Fed Up And Low
Down' where his distinctive sax scrapes can be heard in full effect.
'Help These Blues' reunites Blues Explosion with
Dan Nakamura, better known as Dan The Automator, and is one of the
few tracks where the trio are augmented by a bassist (Daryl Palumbo).
It's certainly closer in style to the classic Blues Explosion sound
finessed by Jordan rather than Holmes's below-par contributions,
and it features some brilliant guitar work from Judah Bauer and
typically wobbly blues-preacher vocals from Spencer.
The limited CD format of the album includes a twenty-odd
minute DVD showing Blues Explosion recording tracks with Steve Jordan
at Globe Studios in New York City in December 2003, with Dan The
Automator at Empire View in March 2004 and with DJ Shadow the following
month. The mixture of monochrome and colour footage of the chilled
out studios highlight just how precise the musicianship of Russell
Simins and Judah Bauer are. There's also some amazing footage of
Steve Jordan effortlessly knocking out a spare funk groove on Simins'
kit, leaving the viewer barely able to make sense of the casual
way he makes the beat come together. Even Spencer, who I always
thought of as being a wild and wayward frontman comes across as
very earnest, a bit like a younger, less awkward and much hairier
David Byrne. Given the way that Blues Explosion music can often
sound like it's on the brink of falling into a messy heap, it all
seems surprisingly professional to be honest, particularly when
someone appears on camera introducing the eighteenth take of 'Mars,
Arizona'. It's a long way from punk's cut-it-and-run aesthetic,
but somehow the trio manage to keep things sounding raw in spite
of evidently being a pretty slick, honed unit. There's also a fun
interlude where Bauer and Simmin's hopelessly try to lay down the
bassline for the DJ Shadow-produced 'Fed Up And Low Down', both
cracking up in the control room at their failed 'bass off'.
A1. / 1. Damage
A2. / 2. Burn It Off
A3. / 3. Spoiled
A4. / 4. Crunchy
A5. / 5. Hot Gossip
A6. / 6. Mars, Arizona
B1. / 7. You Been My Baby
B2. / 8. Rivals
B3. / 9. Help These Blues
B4. / 10. Fed Up And Low Down
B5. / 11. Rattling
B6. / 12. Blowing My Mind
1. Footage of the band recording at Globe Studios, NYC, December
2003 and Empire View, NYC, March / April 2004
single // Burn It Off / Fed Up And Low Down
Rechristening themselves as the easier-to-say Blues
Explosion, Judah Bauer, Russell Simins and leader
Jon Spencer return to the fold with 'Burn It Off', a thundering
rock n' roll masterpiece - all distorted guitar and bass, pounding
drums and a typically wild soul-rock vocal from Spencer; it's a
perfect amalgam of The Beatles' 'Happy Birthday' and the best parts
of the Rolling Stones' back catalogue, bizarrely mixed with impossible
shades of Bon Jovi's 'Bad Medicine'. It's also under three minutes,
giving you the perfect excuse to listen to it over and over. The
Stones connection is quite understandable - this was produced by
Steve Jordan, who has worked with the Keith Richards in the past.
Double A-side 'Fed Up And Low Down', co-written,
produced and mixed by DJ Shadow is slowed-down hip hop rock with
a thrash metal chorus; beautifully chaotic, as Blues Explosion tracks
often are, Spencer's vocals once again treated with distortion and
echo effects. The demo of 'Cold, Cold Eyes' sounds good enough to
be on their raw Mute debut, Now I Got Worry. Plenty
of fuzzy guitar and snare-led soul-inflected heavy blues here, only
Spencer's quiet vocal implying this is a demo.
The clear vinyl 7" also includes the new track,
'Serial Number'. As soon as I get around to hooking up my turntable,
I'll let you know what it's like.
A. Burn It Off
B1. Fed Up And Low Down (Edit)
B2. Serial Number
1. Burn It Off
2. Fed Up And Low Down (Edit)
3. Cold, Cold Eyes (Demo)
single // Hot Gossip
Blues Explosion's second single
from Damage was the transparent red vinyl 7" of 'Hot
Gossip', backed with 'Meet Me In The City'. 'Hot Gossip' is a slow-paced
blues epic featuring plenty of low-slung, meandering riffs, spiky
distortion and a heavy hip-hop groove. On this standout track from
the album, Jon Spencer, Judah Bauer
and Russell Simins are joined by Public Enemy's
Chuck D who provides a typically dystopian rap which suits the mood
perfectly, especially when he begins sparring with Spencer at the
very end of the track. Short and anything but sweet, 'Hot Gossip'
could probably be twice as long and just as funky and heavy-hitting.
And Chuck D's interjections are far better than the lines he dropped
on Sonic Youth's 'Kool Thing'.
'Meet Me In The City' is a cover of a Junior Kimborough
track which appeared in 2005 on a tribute compilation to the bluesman
put together by Fat Possum records. Although Spencer does his usual
rambling, strained, gurning vocal over the laidback, joyous blues
track in trademark style, it's evidently principally a hommage rather
than an attempt to make the track their own. The trio were joined
for this recording by doomed singer Elliott Smith, who played acoustic
guitar on the track.
A. Hot Gossip
B. Meet Me In The City
single // Crunchy
For this third single from the seminal Damage
album, Blues Explosion drafted in two of New York's finest
bands du jour to remodel tracks from that album. Tyler Pope,
Mario Andreoni and Justin Vandervolgen from !!!, under the alias
TMJ take on 'Crunchy' while DFA get 'Mars, Arizona'.
The lead mix of 'Crunchy', one of the catchiest
and straight-up rock standards on Damage sees TMJ blending
Talking Heads-style reedy funk guitar over tinkly percussion and
almost bangra beats, with distorted vocals to create a totally unique
post-punk, 'anything goes' musical vision which wouldn't sound out
of place in the fertile musical melting pot of New York in the late
seventies. Pope and Andreoni provide additional music while Vandervolgen
provided the mix.
'Mars, Arizona' is extended to over 10 mins, and
is the superior funky electronic rock you'd expect from DFA, all
driven by a solid 4/4 beat. The main, fuzzed-up rock riff and Spencer's
sporadic vocals from the original track sound as if they were designed
to exist alongside DFA's urgent electronic backdrop. The second
half of the mix largely leaves guitars to one slide, leaving Spencer
to mutter and yelp over an intense and harshly-filtered 303-esque
A version of the restrained plucked blues track
'Blues Explosion Man' from early album Orange recorded for
New Jersey radio station WFMU rounds of this release, the restrained
guitar, drums and vocals reminding you that this is what Jon
Spencer, Judah Bauer and Russell
Simins are really about.
B. Crunchy (Solex 'Bounce' Remix)
1. Hot Gossip (TMJ (!!!) Remix)
3. Mars, Arizona (DFA Remix)
1. Crunchy (TMJ (!!!) Remix)
2. Mars, Arizona (DFA Remix)
3. Blues Explosion Man (Live at FMU)