BY MATTHEW HENGEVELD Rejoice! Fans of Junior Kimbrough, Beastie Boys, Captain Beefheart and even my beloved (swoon) R.L. Burnside rejoice, I say! The rerelease of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s Orange is just as chock full ‘o balls as it did, presumably, when it was first released in 1994 when I was all of seven. This is the type of blues-rock that makes The Black Keys sound like the Wiggles, and Carlos Mencia sound somehow even less funny. Jon Spencer uses the dugga-duh-dah of Elvis’ voice, with a spice of Mick Jagger, as a centerpiece of his electric twang circus, and it sounds nearly as awkward as my sentence structure. Spencer seems to be suffering from some kind of mild psychosis, rambling and resembling Nicholas Cage losing his shit. Cross-genres aren’t always viewed kindly in American society, and that certainly goes for the interloping of punk crossed-pollinated with delta blues in Orange. But somehow the combination of two lo-fi genres result in a crunchy masterpiece— like my dog’s poop after eating a box of crayons. It works, I swear!
Not to say that this is all dingy basement music either, there is also a hoard of hard-hitting synths and high-impact funk and hip-hop elements. Bending high-pitched space keys hearken to P-Funk (maybe G-funk, given the time vintage of the initial release). This is, perhaps, most noticeable midway through the track “Greyhound,” growing from a growling guitar loop to an all-out homage to Chronic-styled West Coast hip-hop, complete with scratched drums. “Flavor” incorporates electric bass lines that sound fresh out of a Stevie Wonder track.
A good friend and former supervisor of mine was hugely into blues and very picky about authenticity. We worked together at a magazine, and he assigned music reviews to freelance reviewers. Perhaps the crowning moment of his blues career was a field-study he did on R.L. Burnside, arguably the best bluesman of the era. One small point of contention my friend and I had was over the authenticity of modern blues music. He was a stickler for tradition, and artists born out of tradition. My counter-argument, though hardly ever vocalized, was that all blues music is currently devoid of authentic tradition. Modern blues artists tend to do one of three things:
1. Mimic the blues of Lightning Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Leadbelly, etc.— creating a facsimile of the original music, but nothing original usually stems from this.
2. Continue down the path that Chicago blues has crawled, with overly powerful electric guitar and loud drums. It just doesn’t sound that good, and often lacks genuine lyrics. (See John Lee Hooker, Jr.)
3. Mix elements of blues with other musical genres— this is where the greatest innovation in blues music currently resides. R.L. Burnside realized this— he even made an electronic-blues album alongside his son, Cedric, Come On In.
Now, I’m not a blues historian by any stretch, but in my view this third path is where modern blues wonders exist. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is one of these bands. They aren’t necessarily a part of blues-tradition, but they know how to infuse factors of the music to implement a grain of authentic feeling. R.L. Burnside worked closely with the band, recording his opus, the ultra-vulgar A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, as well as its companion Mr. Wizard. Orange was the precursor to such great albums, but incorporates a playfulness that was tamed for the likes of Burnside. Now, with its re-release, this album will hopefully reach the new generation of listeners it deserves.