“Come on fellas, we got to pay respect!” These are the first words we hear Jon Spencer shout on the new Blues Explosion album and it’s a surprisingly conciliatory statement from a guy who built his reputation on blasphemy. Whether horking up scum-punk phlegm balls like “Cunt Tease” and “You Look Like a Jew” with Pussy Galore, or treating Blues Explosion songs like 1-900 hotline advertisements for his sexual stamina, the Jon Spencer of old was never too concerned with exchanging pleasantries and making friends. But for Spencer, indecency and sincerity were the same thing, fuelled by a devout belief in the sort of primal, provocative, persona-driven rock’n’roll embodied by everyone from Little Richard to Iggy Pop to James Chance. The Blues Explosion name was an both an assertion of tradition and an act of treason, reconnecting ’90s post-hardcore indie rock with a history it had disowned, trolling blues purists who assumed the band was mocking the form, all while pissing off their own garage-punk base by importing raps from Beck and beats from Dan the Automator.
Alas, since regrouping after a six-year hiatus in 2010, the Blues Explosion now exist in a world where the context that made their past work so outrageous has all but evaporated, while even a horndog come-on like “baby, baby, you sure like to fuck” seems downright chivalrous at a time when pick-up lines have been replaced by Snapchat dick pics. The Blues Explosion are fully aware that their moment has passed—that line quoted at the top of this review leads off a song called “Funeral”, which sets the thematic tone for a record that essentially functions as the Blues Explosion’s answer to To the 5 Boroughs. Freedom Tower-No Wave Dance Party 2015 is a eulogy for the seedy New York City where Spencer first earned his notoriety—amid the early-’80s triangulation of hardcore, rap, and the avant-garde—and an attempt to come to terms with the gentrified version that exists today. But it’s also an album that rarely forgets the first three letters of “funeral” are f-u-n.
Compared to 2012’s commendable if conventional comeback effort, Meat and Bone, Freedom Tower-No Wave Dance Party 2015 more easily locks into the singularly gritty groove the Blues Explosion patented circa 1994’s Orange. (“Funeral” is pretty much “Flavor” squeezed into a tapered set of “Bellbottoms”, and destined to usurp the latter as the band’s entrance theme of choice.) And if the No Wave in the album title is a bit of a misnomer—this ode to NYC is more DMC than DNA—they at least get the Dance Partypart right, with an infectiously upbeat energy that keeps that action moving at a brisk clip (albeit without the speed-freak menace that once brought out their berserker best). But even if it mostly avoids the scratched-up boom-bap of the band’s past hip-hop nods, Freedom Tower could very well be the band’s most overtly rap-inspired record to date—it’s just that, instead of absorbing the texture of hip-hop into the album’s production, they cop its cadence in the punky performances.
It’s not hard to detect the influence of early Chuck D on Spencer’s “Wax Dummy” spiel, while “The Ballad of Joe Buck”—powered by Russell Simins’ thundering “Halleluwah”-sized beat—sees the frontman assume the nursery-rhyme flow of a circa-’79 block party MC. But these modes are natural fits for Spencer’s maniacal, motor-mouthed mojo, infused with a playfulness that undercuts the chest-beating posturing endemic to rap-rock. And as far as minimalist three-piece rock bands go, Spencer, Simins, and Judah Bauer are at their most intuitive when acting like cut-and-paste producers—they’re still less interested in songwriting than song-writhing, constantly contorting and distorting a track’s trajectory to maximize the endorphin rush. On frenzied, byzantine workouts like “Born Bad” and “Dial Up Doll”, the Blues Explosion cycle through the history of rock’n’roll like one of those YouTube videos that summarizes a season of “Game of Thrones” in two minutes, stripping out stuff like character development and emotional arcs and stitching together only the most essential riffs, rhythms, and one-liners.
Spencer turns 50 this year, a factor that’s less audible in Freedom Tower’s spirited swagger than in the frothy dad-worthy humor that occasionally rises to the fore—like the proud Rufus Thomas-inspired “world’s oldest teenager” boast on the roadhouse funk of “Do the Get Down”, or the urban-cowboy blues of “Down and Out”, a light-hearted requiem for a modern-day, overpriced New York where even “a million dollars ain’t gonna last you but one year.” And while Freedom Tower isn’t exactly a concept album, it can belabor the NYC-nostalgia angle: From the titular nod to Run-DMC’s breakthrough single to the CBGB shout-outs to the archival JSBX interview snippets, “Tales of Old New York: Rock Box” is practically a VH1 special in miniature. But the album’s backward-gazing perspective doesn’t detract from the fact that Freedom Tower contains some of the Blues Explosion’s most inspired, vital music since their mid-’90s peak. And in a world where brawnier but decidedly humorless blooze-belters like the Black Keys and Royal Blood still fill arenas, the Blues Explosion’s cheeky, scrappy brand of rock’n’roll is still something to cherish in the here and now.
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