The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Now I Got Worry
A Ass Pocket of Whiskey
Mr. Spencer doesn't fit the mold of your run-of-the-mill sonic archivist. His music is derived from the blues, rockabilly and rock and roll, but his approach to these genres couldn't be further removed from the respectful, somewhat dry revivalism practiced by most academicians, be they professionals or amateurs. In his late-Seventies cover of the Elvis hit "Little Sister," Ry Cooder sang in a smooth, unaffected voice stripped of any and all Presley affectations; by contrast, Spencer regularly bows to the King, but his impressions are merged with goofy outbursts that bespeak a fondness for the work of Charlie Callas. On Orange, from 1994, the Explosion (Spencer, Russell Simins and Judah Bauer) gave such deconstructionist impulses a fresh jolt: "Bellbottoms," in particular, integrated the band's sarcasm and sincerity so well that they became virtually indistinguishable. Now I Got Worry is not nearly as successful, because it's not nearly as singular. "Dynamite Lover," for instance, is a Rolling Stones knockoff that displays far too much respect; rather than using the Mick/Keith formula in an entirely new way, Spencer slavishly apes it. No fun in that. Several other tracks that also pull punches ("Rocketship" and "Can't Stop" among them) wind up seeming like enjoyably sloppy but minor bar-band excursions, and even several wilder opuses (like "Skunk" and "Wail") tromp through the same fields where Spencer has partied in the past. The trio is better served by "Fuck Shit Up," a Beck-meets-the-Beasties cut-and-paste effort that won't sit still for pigeonholing; "Firefly Child," which features some oddball soul nods; and (believe it or not) "Chicken Dog," in which old-timer Rufus Thomas is sucked into the craziest of musical vortexes. R.L. Burnside, blues vet and inspiration for the Worry cut "R.L. Got Soul," receives similar treatment on A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, which Burnside, the members of the Explosion and guitarist Kenny Brown recorded in a single afternoon last February. Blues purists offended by Spencer's gleeful inauthenticity have sniffed at the disc, and they've got a point: If you're looking for blues uncut by the influence of zany white people, look elsewhere. Besides, Burnside is a worthy and fascinating artist in his own right--he doesn't need propping up. But where Whiskey goes right is in its obvious energy and enthusiasm. At a time when far too many blues discs have become studied and enervated, this one is as unhinged as Margot Kidder in a roomful of CIA operatives. "Goin' Down South," "Poor Boy," "The Criminal Inside Me" and a cover of John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillun" are scorching exercises in musical ecstasy, and "Tojo Told Hitler" is as twisted a history lesson as you're likely to receive. Throughout, Spencer exhibits a profound love for Burnside, but he doesn't allow his affection to make him either boring or predictable--something he would do well to remember next time he's on his own.
Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo: The Best of Rick Derringer
Big Innings: Best of the Outfield
Taken separately or together, these two releases make the most compelling case for a rock-industry pension plan since the ill-fated comeback of Duran Duran. As a teenage guitarist with the McCoys, the former Rick Zehringer must bear at least partial responsibility for the nonsensical frat-party staple "Hang On Sloopy," represented here in a reggae-tinged 1975 version that sounds even more like "Louie Louie" than the original does. That's hardly Derringer's only sin, however. "Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo," from 1973, still inspires classic-rock jocks from Pittsburgh to Petaluma, but the only Bic-flicking the rest of this collection is apt to provoke would be considered arson in most municipalities. Which brings us to the Outfield, a squeaky-clean British act whose three members probably wouldn't know a ground-rule double if it hit them in the arses. The group's main claims to infamy are the mid-Eighties cuts "Since You've Been Gone" and "Voices of Babylon," both of which sound a lot like Men at Work outtakes as warbled by Yes's Jon Anderson. But the compilation also includes a host of even less-distinguished cuts, along with a couple of what the CD's sleeve calls "instant classics" that will undoubtedly strike out with everyone but diehard followers of the combo--provided there are any such creatures still among the living, that is. I will say this much for the Outfield, however: To release this stuff in 1996 takes, ahem, balls.
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By all rights, this disc should be a commercial monster. After all, Bobby Brown, Johnny Gill, Ralph Tresvant, Ricky Bell, Mike Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe have enjoyed success in other formats since the last (very successful) Edition. But while Home Again entered the charts at number one, it didn't stay there for long, and it's been sliding ever since. The reasons behind this middling response aren't obvious, at least at first: The singles "Hit Me Off" and "I'm Still in Love With You" are as slick and assured as anything else on the players' resumes, and "Tighten It Up," "Shop Around," "How Do You Like Your Love Served" and the rest are clearly the work of pros. (Producers on the project include the always reliable Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.) But after the recording has played through, I bet you'll have a damned hard time remembering anything you've heard. The New Edition style is well-established--so much so that a hundred other groups are cloning it at any given moment. Instead of trying something different to avoid being lumped in with the rabble, though, Bobby and company have painted by the numbers--and that's not good news for anyone. Welcome home; now go away.