No Laughing Matter

Despite the irony, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion ain't no joke.

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, with Reigning Sound Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Road 9 p.m. Friday, January 17, $15, 216-383-1124.
Daring to detonate: The Blues Explosion is a blast live.
Daring to detonate: The Blues Explosion is a blast live.

Even though the band has been making music for more than a decade, people still wonder whether the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is for real. No matter how hard the band rocks, the same questions linger: Are they making fun of the blues? Are they making fun of punk? Are they making fun of us?

Drummer Russell Simins wants to put our minds at ease.

"I think we just have a sense of humor," he says. "We take what we do very seriously. If an element of irony enters into it, I think that's just because of the way we view life in general. It's not like it's one big joke."

The distinction should be clear. But we live in a time when the middle ground keeps collapsing beneath our feet. You're either for President Bush or against the United States, a tree-hugger or an environmental savage, a touchy-feely "new male" or a Neanderthal. The music world is no exception, which is why we need bands like the Blues Explosion. They remind us how ridiculous it is to worry about whether culture is "authentic." After all, Robert Johnson may sound tortured sometimes, but he also can make you laugh. That playfulness is as integral to rock music as are suffering and desire.

"We're very passionate about music history," Simins says, adding that a subversive quality is "part of the music tradition that we appreciate, and it makes it into our music as well."

Reviews of the Blues Explosion's new record, Plastic Fang, have focused on frontman Jon Spencer's werewolf persona. To be sure, there are quite a few songs in which he plays the wolf card, as does the video for the first single, "She Said." If you're looking for self-important lyrical posturing, you'll have to look elsewhere. And that bothers some folks who want their independent rock to plumb the depths of experience. Unfortunately, that view of what counts as meaningful experience is far too limited. The album's title provides a good rejoinder to such criticisms. You don't wear plastic fangs to scare people. But you don't wear them to make fun of folks, either. You wear them to have fun.

When the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion tries on the music of its forebears -- from rockabilly Elvis Presley to arty James Chance and the Contortions -- the band isn't seeking to show anybody up. As Simins puts it, "I think that's what we are mostly about -- the many influences that make up our music." On record, though, the Blues Explosion's rootsy noise has sometimes sounded a little distant. The shiny cover of its best-known album, Orange, mirrors the icy clarity of the record's production. And the cut-and-paste experiments with Dan the Automator that are scattered across the band's last full-length, 1999's Xtra-Acme USA, reinforce the impression that the Blues Explosion's playfulness might be excessively cerebral.

While the move from Xtra-Acme USA to Plastic Fang is not of the same order as the Rolling Stones' return to earth on 1968's Beggars Banquet, Plastic Fang still sports the aura of a back-to-basics record. The songs are shorter, tighter, and groovier, and display a stronger pop sensibility than those that appeared on the band's last few albums. Asked to summarize Plastic Fang, Spencer described it as "our most consistent record. Thematically, musically, sonically, it really is a whole."

Responding to reports that producer Steve Jordan reined in the band's rhythmic eccentricities (all previous Blues Explosion records were self-produced), Simins argues that the songs themselves dictated this approach. "It's better that they have a certain steadiness to them, even without compromising the energy," he says. "To be short about it, Plastic Fang is a more straightforward record that showcases the rock side of our band and has less playing around with the songs and fucking them up."

From one angle, these comments could be viewed as a sign of retrenchment. After all, when bands have a track record as long as the Blues Explosion's, it becomes easier to go through the motions. But Simins insists that the concept is still fresh. Explaining why the Blues Explosion has never deviated from the two-guitarists-and-a-drummer format, he admits that a bass player would come in handy at times, but concludes, "It's not what we're about. The Blues Explosion has always been that way. I think we do a good job of making up for the absence of bass, especially on our records. And if there were a bass player, we wouldn't be able to be as exciting and over-the-top as we are. I think it would get in the way. Our format keeps things cruising at a certain speed. There's a certain craziness to our live show."

It will be interesting to see how the relative restraint of Plastic Fang translates in the live setting. The band has been touring the songs for months, so all the details have been worked out by now. Will the steadiness of the record come undone? There's an awfully good chance that it will. But the result is bound to satisfy. Perhaps the most refreshing thing about the Blues Explosion is its members' candor. They know how good they are. Asked for any parting thoughts, Simins describes watching a video of a recent Blues Explosion concert at the Brixton Academy in London.

"I was like 'Wow.' It really blew me away, and I don't often say that when I see footage of us," Simins says. "I'm very proud of us as a rock band, how we've stuck together, and I think we're only getting better. We're one of the greatest live rock bands," he adds, with no hint of the irony that often infuses his band's music. "It's really important to see us play."

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