Most Fabulous: Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s Orange Revisited

Julian Marszalek slips into his bellbottoms to celebrate the 25th anniversary of a rock album that was really an experimental funk bombshell

For all their reputation as an out of control, speeding rock & roll dynamo whose brake fluid ran out several hundred miles ago, it bears remembering just how funky a unit Jon Spencer Blues Explosion really are. Indeed, revisiting Orange, the band’s fourth album and now celebrating its 25th anniversary, is to be reacquainted with a noise and sense of dynamic so rooted in bump and grind as to foul up your living room with the unmistakable aromas and odours of urban living. This is the sound of city life, specifically that of New York in the mid-90s, as it captures the rhythms of the streets, the noise of the traffic and confusion, and release that only living in a huge metropolitan sprawl made up of different cultures, colours and smells can offer.

Orange is a hugely ambitious record and one whose aspirations pay off admirably. It finds the Blues Explosion moving away from the straight ahead ramalama of their earlier releases to take stock and absorb not only their immediate surroundings but also of the musical landscape that was embracing the present as much as it was the future. Theirs wasn’t a vision of retrospection but one of contemporary cut and paste techniques that placed them in the same universe as Beastie Boys and Beck whose Ill Communication and Mellow Gold also dropped that year. Little wonder, then, that all three artists would circle and collide with each other.

Orange isn’t filled with songs so much as a variety of sound collages, riffs and hollering akin to turning wildly the dial knob on your radio this way and that to grasp at the varying sounds that hijack the airwaves. Witness opener ‘Bellbottoms’ which still remains the band’s pinnacle. The staccato stabs at the guitar usher in a string section that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Blaxploitation movie before giving way to guttural screams, yelps and lascivious laughter that at once thrill and unnerve. The track stops abruptly before kicking in with a blast of music funk that doffs its cap to James Chance And The Contortions. That it stops again to allow Spencer to become the ringmaster in this three-ring circus adds to the disorientation and its final headlong rush of aural madness recalls the idiocy of attempting to cross 14th Street in rush hour with a head full of snow.

This initial blast is swiftly followed up by the demented one-two of ‘Ditch’ and ‘Dang’ that refuse the listener any respite. Adding to the shrieks and distorted blasts of harp on the latter is a searing Theremin that slices with scant regard for mercy. Yet for all this pulverising action, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion know when to hold back. ‘Very Rare’ and ‘Sweat’ finds the band settling into a slow groove that displays an almost playful side, albeit one that finds fun and satisfaction in fucking with your expectations. "You think you know us?" they seem to taunt. "Well think again."

The playing throughout the album is utterly remarkable, a display of telepathy and chemistry that’s so rare to find. The band’s ability to bounce off of each other and react to the most nuanced of ideas and changes comes from a deep mutual understanding and a wide expanse of ideas that are compressed, coalesced and crushed to create beauty from a seemingly trash aesthetic. Russell Simins’ drumming is so precise that its tightness almost hurts. Using the minimum of percussive instruments he still manages to generate an expansive sound that marks him down as a true original. You can feel the love of his instruments as each beat comes whip-cracking through. He doesn’t smash his drums; he feels them and so, in turn, do you. Similarly, guitarist Judah Bauer plays with an economy that belies the judiciously served onslaught deployed throughout. Check the clipped and slashed chords of ‘Flavor’ that lock in with Simins’ drums that add to the percussive propulsion. This is playing that relies less on melody and more on the irresistible lure of rhythm and, as evidenced on ‘Brenda’, seemingly the most conventional of all the songs contained within these grooves, he keeps things rooted while maintaining an air of breathless excitement. Meanwhile, Spencer’s downtuned guitar roots the material with a fearsome bottom end that pays scant regard to the conventions of bass playing.

Orange is an album that’s aware of the madness it’s creating and one that employs humour throughout. This isn’t to suggest that it doesn’t take itself seriously – it does – but its laughs act as safety valve to the mania that infuses the album. Some, such as Spencer’s warning of "Don’t call me after 12 ‘cos that’s when I’m laying in bed home with the wife" on ‘Blues X Man’, are clearly intentional, an inversion of the tomcat image of the stereotypical blues singer as elsewhere, his demented ranting and persona are too huge and larger than life to take at face value.

A high watermark in the career of Jon Spencer Blues Explosions, Orange also sets the bar for rock & roll. With the mid-90s fast becoming the time when so much rock music looked back over its shoulders to seize decades old influences without ever truly understanding what led to their creation, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion fully embraced the possibilities and opportunities afforded by the here and now. In doing so, they reinvigorated a genre with a much needed boost of excitement and creativity that’s so far down the line that few bands have dared imitate it let alone dare repeat it. And that includes the band themselves. But then again, they don’t need to. They did what they had to do and their subsequent journey has seen them plough a very individual and idiosyncratic furrow. It might well be a distillation and isolation of particular time and place but such is its achievement and unique standing that the record’s perfectly formed ideas and execution resonate with a clarity down the decades that makes it timeless. There’s not many that can claim that.

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