In an “alt.rock” ’90s ruled by po-faced insufferables like Smashing Pumpkins and an unsolicitedly introspective Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion was a fairly hilarious breath of fresh air. Sure, there may have been a nagging malaise of arguably disrespectful appropriation about them, but comparatively speaking, the JSBX were a thousand times less deliberately objectionable than Spencer’s previous band, Pussy Galore. That uproariously rude little combo was every bit as cartoony, but they were more than happy to oblige if you felt like being offended.
Ultimately, in the case of both bands, it was just shtick. That doesn’t necessarily make it alright, but since when was good rock ‘n’ roll supposed to be polite? And Jon Spencer’s famously exaggerated antics on the mic were even harder to stay mad at in the context of a frenzied Blues Explosion live performance, an exhausting rock ‘n’ roll spectacle even the most politically correct audience would be hard pressed to sneer at.
But two decades after their potty-mouthed heyday, a reconstituted JSBX is back on the scene, and times have changed.
A couple of months prior to the official release of their new album, Freedom Tower: No Wave Dance Party 2015 (get it from Amazon), the band whetted appetites with the debut of a video for “Do the Get Down,” a busy pastiche of carefully cherry-picked images of the dirty ol’ NYC of the past four decades (choice footage includes snippets of Plato’s Retreat, Jim Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation, vintage Dead Boys performances, David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, etc.) scoring a fittingly funky riff-workout. Evoking the sample-blitz of the Beastie Boys’ made-in-L.A.-but-NYC-reverent Paul’s Boutique from 26 years earlier, deploying the video for “Do the Get Down” as a place-setter for the album was a gesture of pure, unfettered nostalgia from top to bottom. In the wake of 9/11 and the ensuing decade-and-a-half of sweeping gentrification that has largely disemboweled New York’s gritty character, Jon Spencer seemed to be feeling both his age and a palpable sense of affection for a badlands town that doesn’t really exist anymore.
That all said, despite all the preamble, beyond that video, its title and and a few overt namechecks peppered throughout proceedings (Houston Street, Union Square, E. 14th Street, Bloomingdales and—somewhat predictably—CBGB’s notorious bathroom), Freedom Tower isn’t really about New York City any more than any previous JSBX album. Spencer’s declaration during “Down and Out” that NYC is “the home of the blues” seems a bit clumsy as well, but then, he’d be the first to admit that his band doesn’t really play the blues to begin with.
Musically speaking, the Blues Explosion’s signature formula continues to hold sway. The band’s always been at their best when flying by the seat of their tight leather trousers (arguably best captured on their frantic live outing, Controversial Negro: Live in Tucson—a title that did no one any favors). Though it’s a solidly produced affair, Freedom Tower: No Wave Dance Party 2015 still offers up 13 tracks of the band’s mutated blues-funk amalgam, rife with dueling, rubbery riffs and relentless grooves, courtesy of juggernaut drummer Russell Simins (at his furiously funkiest on “The Ballad of Joe Buck”). Though endearingly still capable of hitting the gas and careening into delirious chaos, the trio employs enough restraint—comparatively speaking—and stays in the pocket long enough to establish these recordings as proper songs, not just giddily volatile collages of stuttering guitars and beats.
Beyond being the oft-cited “love letter” to New York City (a sentiment today’s youthful Brooklynaires are probably bored with), this album is more like the sound of the JSBX reasserting themselves. While still rife with shtick (true to form, it takes Spencer exactly 15 seconds to zealously invoke the band’s fabled moniker), Freedom Tower inarguably showcases an older, more thoughtful incarnation of the Blues Explosion. The priapic swagger is still there, but it now rubs against the occasional exhortation (more clearly enunciated than on any of their previous records) of vulnerable, weathered wisdom. At this stage of the game, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion might not be able to shrug off the mantle of “dad rock,” but when one’s dad is clearly having this much fun getting down, who can fault him?
Stream Freedom Tower: No Wave Dance Party 2015 on Spotify: