You gotta love an original. Even when that original is essentially a masterful pastiche, as is the case with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, now in its 24th year of not so much fusing the sounds of punk, funk, blues, garage rock and whatever else they can get hold of into a cohesive sound, but more slamming them into each other to see what comes from the chaos. The trio of singer/guitar Jon Spencer, drummer Russell Simins and lead guitar Judah Bauer have been shaking this concoction to similarly fizzy effect for quite some time now, and at one point seemed poised to break out. In the mid-nineties, when interesting music was briefly chart worthy, JSBE rode the buzz from their classic LP Orange all the way to 121 on the Billboard 200 with the serviceable (if not breathtaking) album Now I Got Worry. It would prove to be the commercial high water mark for the band. Since then, there have been five albums and countless shows, keeping their core fans and seemingly themselves quite happy living the blue-collar rock n’ roll road dog life their sound has always suggested. Three years from their last release, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion has given us the bizarrely titled Freedom Tower – No Wave Dance Party 2015, and despite that ill-advised temporal specificity, you’d never know this was a late record from an aging band.
The first track, incongruously named “Funeral”, is as irresistible and fun a song as this band has played in years. Pulsing with kick-the-damn-door-down energy, Spencer’s usual self-referential shouting (‘Blues Explosion!’) wrestles ecstatically with Bauer’s head-nodding guitar work and Simins’ slithering funk-infused drums. It may or may not be the best track on the album; I wouldn’t want to have to call a race that tight. “Born Bad” could certainly give it a run for the title with break after break being unleashed by neo-rockabilly shouting and given definition by the odd psychedelic bridge.
There are the occasional breather tracks, like “White Jesus”, which slows down a bit (a bit) but still destroys thanks in the most part to Russell Simins; his percussion work on this album should earn him the MVP title. “Down and Out” is also much less frenzied, its bright liveliness evoking a beautiful day’s walk in the city and featuring gotta-smile lyrics like “This is America, baby! We ain’t got no class!”
At times, there is a strange hip-hop flavor to Freedom Tower. There are places where that works, such as on “Wax Dummy” where the beats combine with guitar squeals to create a sound reminiscent of Cypress Hill’s “Pigs”, and there are spots where it doesn’t. “Ballad of Joe Buck” is one such, where Spencer’s oddly sort-of rapped vocals do nothing to elevate the noisy, largely wasted effort.
At only a little over thirty-five minutes in length, it does seem odd that Freedom Tower feels a bit overstuffed by its second half. After the jammy, formless (still toe-tapping) “Crossroad Hop”, there is a sense that the best of the album was front-loaded and it doesn’t do much to thrill after that point. The exception to this is “Bellevue Baby”, a noisy stomper which gives way to a mid-period Stones vibe that can’t be anything but exciting. Other than that, however, it seems Blues Explosion had limited ideas to go with their unlimited energy and while that certainly doesn’t sink the record, it can’t help but feel like a slight letdown after the promise of the first handful of tracks.
All told, this is one of the best, most exciting rock albums I’ve heard this year. More importantly, it’s one of the best I’ve heard from Blues Explosion since way back on 1995 when the iconic Orange first pinned my ears back with its deafening declaration that a particular adult woman In Spencer’s acquaintance was extremely fond of copulation. When a band can do one thing really well for a quarter century, it’s kind of a miracle. Even more so when that thing is as bizarre and high-voltage as what Jon Spencer and the boys do. Ultimately, the eponymous Jon speaks for all of us as he opens Freedom Tower with a shout: “Come on, fellas! We got to pay respect!” Pay up.