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Jon Spencer Sings The Hits and Explosive Blues on Solo Debut

With the psychobilly warble firmly in place and the wail just as solid, Jon Spencer goes solo, but keeps the blues explosions raw, gritty, and grungy

Jon Spencer is most well known for leading The Blues Explosion, which blasted into the mainstream with their 1996 album Now I Got Worry and its radio ready hit “Wail.” Fitting perfectly into the burgeoning world of post-grunge alt-rock of the type that unabashedly acknowledged what came before musically, Jon Spencer and The Blues Explosion was the perfect antidote to the other grunge alternative that was sweeping the mainstream in the form of No Doubt and ska. Raw, freshly molded, garage stained, and grungy sounding enough to not be actual grunge, Jon Spencer and The Blues Explosion would pave the way for less threatening sounding blues revisionists like The White Stripes, The Black Keys, and a host of others who would play grungy blues, but obviously shoot for mainstream success from the get go.

A little over a half a decade later, The JSBX would release 2002’s Plastic Fang, which would streamline their sound and deliver their most cohesive and best sounding (as well as most radio friendly) album yet. It was around about this time that Spencer’s first solo album began to germinate after repeatedly crossing paths with Quasi frontman Sam Cooms and drummer H. Sord. “…we kicked around the idea of a collaboration way back in the early Aughts,” said Spencer to Rolling Stone. It would take almost two more decades, but that collaboration finally happened with Spencer Sings The Hits!

While the title might suggest so, Spencer Sings The Hits! (In The Red Records) isn’t a covers album. It’s all new material from Spencer, Cooms and Sord. The fits and starts, aforementioned wails and psychobilly tinged warbles in Spencer’s voice, and dirty, bluesy (although not quite blues proper) guitar playing makes Spencer Sings The Hits! indistinguishable from a Blues Explosion cut of tracks. Most of the album actually sounds like a collection of JSBX hits that never were, as each song sounds like it comes from a different era in the JSBX catalogue. “Ghost,” irregardless of its title, would have fit perfectly on Plastic Fang, and is one of the album’s strongest tracks. “Fake” would be at home on Now I Got Worry. It’s the album’s most confrontational track. It’s tempting, and even potentially fulfilling, to think that it’s Spencer’s “eff you” to all his imitators, but I like to think that he’s a little more classy than that…or not. While “Fake” occupies the second slot on the album’s tracklist, it really isn’t until “Overload” until we get into seriously interesting territory. A more fully filled out song, with a ass moving bass line and a razor sharp guitar lead, “Overload” is Spencer taking his unique sound to more accessible levels, while keeping the quirkiness firmly in the forefront. It’s Spencer at his best.

“Hornet” turns the tables on Spencer’s most closest imitator, Jack White, by indulging in the type of angry buzz sounding guitar distortion that White milked for all it was worth. “Wilderness” reduces the whole Spencer sound to a basic, almost rote, beat and riff that somehow avoids sounding rote and basic. It’s one of Spencer’s magical music gifts and he casts its spell most perfectly here more than anywhere else on the album. “Love Handle” showcases Spencer’s guitar playing ability, which is much more elevated and accomplished than one might imagine on a cursory listen to his body of work. “I Got The Hits” is a full on tongue in cheek homage to every guitar pop hit song ever written. It rounds out the album’s diverse sound.

While there’s no formal declaration of disbandment as far as Spencer’s most well known unit is concerned, if Spencer continued on solo the rest of his career, his fans wouldn’t be completely let down by a collection of Spencer solo efforts. Somehow though, while Spencer Sings The Hits! is a worthy entry into the artist known as Jon Spencer’s varied catalogue, it has mostly ended up getting me psyched up for the next full on Blues Explosion joint, as well as his next live appearance near me.  

Jon Spencer and The Hitmakers will be playing The Neighborhood Theatre on 1-27-19.

Carolina's based writer/journalist Andy Frisk love music, and writing, and when he gets to intermingle the two he feels most alive. Covering concerts and albums by both local and national acts, Andy strives to make the world a better place and prove Gen X really can still save the world.

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