|November 2, 1998
by Shan Fowler and Lissa Townsend Rodgers |
||The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
is the Jon Spencer Blues Explosionís most ambitious album
to date, in which they quit hinting at blues, R&B, hip-hop,
and funk styles and attempt to fully incorporate them. Their
famed "two guitars, drums, no bass" stripped-down attack has
been greatly expanded with the help of a battery of producers,
a legion of recording studios, an army of collaborators, and
every instrument they could lay their hands on. And overseeing
it all as executive producer, legendary dirty old soul man
A lot of the songs on "Acme" come off like the gentlemen
of Blues Explosion played Frankensteinís monster with their
record collectionsan idea planted here, a sample grafted
there, a hook dropped in between. Like all scientific experiments,
sometimes it works, sometimes it doesnít. Their tribute
to K-Records overlord Calvin Johnson, "Calvin," is a blaxploitation
collage laid over repetitive guitar riffs and breakbeats.
The vocal track, a string of sampled "uh"s and "baby"s and
"astrological soul train getting doooowwn," is sure to further
irk those critics who disdain the Blues Explosion as a trust-fund
minstrel show. "Do You Wanna Get Heavy?" opens with an acoustic
guitar and Spencerís spoken-word intro over the subtle backing
of a doo-wop group, then crashes into grinding guitar and
distorted vocals, which suddenly drop away as the chorus
reappears and begins gospel-izing. Spencer responds to their
escalating outbursts with silence, then mushmouthed rambling,
then a few strangled screams: he sounds intimidated.
Still, when "Acme" works, it goddam works. "Loviní
Machine" is one of the yearís most irresistible songs, taking
a ringing guitar riff as foundation, and gradually layering
a barrelhouse piano, moogs, and maracas on topthen
breaking the whole mess down and building it up again. It
makes you want to dance, it makes you want to drink, it
makes you want to drive fast and laugh hysterically. All
the bits also help swell "Torture," another killer number,
to epic proportions. A three-note piano riff and scrap of
falsetto crooning provide the hooks for Spencerís moaning
and shrieking, then a string section sweeps in at the end
and escalates it all to agonized soul-ballad level.
Not that all of "Acme" is riffs and bits; a good half/third
of it is typical Blues Explosion tunes, but they donít seem
to generate the maelstrom of energy they used to. "Acme"
is an interesting album, one that makes you look forward
to the next effortif this one sometimes falls short,
itís because the aim was higher.
Lissa Townsend Rodgers
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
"Is This Desire?"
Black Star, Lewis Parker, A Tribe Called Quest
Hepcat, Gomez, Bob Mould
Liz Phair, DJ Vadim, UNKLE
Deftones, Mary J. Blige, Neotropic
Chocolate Genius, The Fieldstones, Dimtri from Paris
MC Lyte, Fastball, Marc Ribot
Amon Tobin, Pullman, Jesus and Mary Chain
musicians have undergone the intense cosmetic makeover Courtney
Love has put herself through since releasing Hole's second
LP, "Live Through This," four years ago. Everybody knows the
story, so the only recap needed here is that Love went from
being an outsider raging against the machine to being a shiny,
well-oiled part of said machine. If she attempted the same
raging bitch (and I mean that as a compliment) opus she made
four years ago, it would have been as plastic as its jewel
case. "Celebrity Skin" is not a repeat, yet it's not what
we've come to expect from the woman who must have "front page
news" written into her contract.
"Celebrity Skin" is rife with cliches, though that's not a change, either. Love has always fallen back on lazy lyrics. The difference is that even her delivery is lazy. Her exaggerated enunciation ("cold as ice"="caw-old as I-eece") makes "Northern Star" an even worse power ballad than the acoustic guitar and string flourishes suggest. When Love does her best to sneer through the closing stanza of the title track"You want a part of me/Well, I'm not selling cheap/No, I'm not selling cheap"she barely smears her lipstick. Of course, lipstick smears are gauche for the new Courtney. Apparently she's neither ready to say goodbye to the teenage outcasts who made her a rock star nor give a resounding hello to the Hollywood elite who have accepted her as a glamour queen.
That's the real problem. Love's attempt to please everyone is pandering of the first degree. She tries to keep one foot placed in her past and the other pointed toward her future, and the result is a CD full of forgettable moments. For such an enigmatic character, known for doing exactly what she wants, the death knell isn't bad reactions, it's no reaction at all, which is exactly what "Celebrity Skin" deserves.
"Is This Desire?"
Jean Harveyís newest album is further evidence of her uniqueness
as a musician. It's not only her seamless mingling of everything
from techno to country to rock to trip-hop to gospel that
sets her apart, but also her subject matter and attitude toward
it. Harvey is a master of exploring and conveying obsession,
whether through the eyes of the object or the one fixated.
"Is This Desire?" presents a cast of enigmatic womenLeah,
Joy, Catherine, Elise, Dawnwhose stories unfold over
constantly shifting, alternately subtle and overpowering backgrounds.
"Anglene" opens with a spare country guitar, joined by a marching
beat that rolls like storm clouds on the horizon as the lady
of the title lists her charms, sins, and virtues. Then the
tension breaks abruptly into rapture, organs sinking in, pianos
pounding, as she calls on God or the Devil doesnít matter
who, as long as itís a man "who will collect my soul and come
Not that itís all orchestration and effects and whisperings.
In "My Beautiful Leah" the weight of the narratorís infatuation
is reflected in the heaviness of the music-the sort of beats
you hear echoing through deserted city streets at night,
sepulchral synths oozing, horror-movie strings flashing
like lightning. "No Girl So Sweet," which sounds like a
techno remix of a "Four-Track Demos" outtake, is one of
the few songs that actually have prominent, recognizable
guitars. "Joy" is late-80ís neo-industrial death-grind,
the vocals an agonized yelp.
"The Wind" is about Catherine who "liked high places," who
abandoned her life to brood alone in "a chapel with her
image on the wall. Her tale is related in a deadpan whisper,
joined by another voicestill Harvey, but now a high,
light croonwhich shifts constantly between echoing
and predicting the whispered words. The musical backdrop
is as intriguing as the story: an initial guitar figure
and brushed drums are overtaken by beats, synths, wooshings,
and a host of distant-sounding effects that respond to the
story being spun. Later on the album comes "Catherine,"
in which a simple drumbeat and trickle of keyboards drift
behind the narrator weakly cursing "Catherine DeBara, youíve
murdered my thinking/I gave you my heart, you left the thing
stinking." Is it the same woman? Is this what she left behind?
Maybe, but the most enigmatic heroine on "Is This Desire?"
is Harvey, who leaves us to draw our own conclusions.
Lissa Townsend Rodgers