Nineteen times. By my count, that’s how many times the words “Blues Explosion” are said, shouted or sung on The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s fourth album, released back in the fall of 1994.
I’m not sure it’s their best, but it’s the one I got in on, the first one which got my attention. I’d never heard anything like it, and probably still haven’t — boisterous, raunchy, machismo-centric garage rock with no bass player, boundaries or serious message. Oh, and it’s not blues and more of a carpet bomb than an explosion.
There’s no question who the Blues Explosion are/were. It’s named for lead vocalist/guitarist Jon Spencer, but you hear the names of guitarist/backing vocalist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins almost as often as you hear the words “Blues Explosion” in almost all of the songs.
My main instrument was bass when I first got this record, so it was actually awesome to put it on and play along — and be the only bass. Off the top of my head, some other bands without a bass player: The Doors, Sleater-Kinney, The White Stripes, Japandroids, Suicide and The Black Keys. I could be cheeky and say U2.
Orange is one of the more accessible Blues Explosion albums, more together than its predecessor Extra Width and not as raw as the followup Now I Got Worry. Personally, I’ve always liked the next one, Acme, which has additional grooviness to the swagger and is more polished. But this silver-sleeved hot rock is a garage banger masterpiece, no question. And it’s funny as hell, but not in a quippy way.
It opens with Bellbottoms, or rather, it opens with an introduction to Bellbottoms which sets the tone perfectly:
“Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen
Right now I got to tell you about
Bellbottoms truly make me wanna dance!”
A cool drum beat, fist guitar and ’70s disco strings. It’s obviously mostly recorded live, even the lead vocals which are drenched in echo. Spencer provides the bassline on guitar, some of the time. There’s a guitar solo which comes in LOUD and seemingly without a plan — but for the most part, this band is well-rehearsed and plays tight and smart.
Bellbottoms flows seamlessly into Ditch, which might be my second-favourite cut on the album. It’s got a catchy hook, effective and simple dynamics and guitar tones which work well together and don’t end up just being a wall of white noise. Dang is next, and it’s a frenetic bonker. Fast and annoying, featuring an F-bomb, two chords with screaming harmonica.
Thank goodness for Very Rare, which is another musically pleasing one — a walking beat instrumental with a cool little guitar thing, ’60s accent organ, fuzz bass-like guitar and handclaps. Sweat is top-flight, definitive mid-’90s Blues Explosion.
Side 1 wraps with the mellow-by-comparison Cowboy. It’s like Let It Bleed on bath salts. This one’s a bit boring, though. Sounds like a rehearsal.
The title track opens the second side, another slower groovy number. It doesn’t really have a good hook, even though it does contain the lyric “Star Trek style” and a few more strokes from the strings we heard on Bellbottoms.
This is followed by perhaps the album’s most accessible song, Brenda. It has proper verses and a chorus — and builds. And rocks. There’s heaps of character in the vocal delivery, too… of course. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to mention that.
A more chaotic one next, Dissect. It’s awkward. Bull in a china shop. The rock ’n’ roll equivalent of dragging a parachute of tin cans and dictionaries down a parking garage stairwell. Next is Blues X Man, which is menacing and cool and a little bit like crossing a revival preacher with Los Saicos.
Finally, my favourite: Full Grown. If you like rockin’ drummers, raunchy call-and-response stuff and filthy lyrics about mature women who really like sex, this is your jam. This little bastard made its way onto dozens and dozens of mix tapes back in the day. How about this for creative writing:
“I’m gonna let you get on top
Get on top
Then I’m gonna
Man, I’m gonna dance
Make me feel so unnecessary
My father was Sister Ray
Take a whiff of my pant leg baby
Full grown, get down
Full grown woman like to fuck.”
The longest song on the album by a wide margin is next, Flavor, which features vocals from Beck towards the end — seemingly done over the phone. It’s cool, but way too long.
The album wraps with another instrumental, Greyhound, a psychobilly number with one of those repeating guitar refrains I love. If this song was on Acme it probably would have featured more prominently, perhaps even as the album opener. It’s pretty straightforward until the ending, which is a series of hits accompanied by a thin, meandering Urge Overkill-like organ.
The last thing you hear is a bottle smashing, and just like an orange pop, as much as you enjoyed it, you don’t need another one just yet.
• • •
Area Resident is an Ottawa-based journalist, recording artist, music collector and re-seller. Hear (and buy) his music on Bandcamp, email him HERE, follow him on Instagram and check him out on Discogs.