[29 September 2006]
There must be a small cadre of hardcore fans out there who feel that JSBX’s recorded output, while superbly rocking, was a little too clean, a little too carefully produced. For these purists—we imagine them encrusted up to the elbow in motor grease, smelling of cheap liquor, with a perpetual cigarette hanging from one corner of the mouth— Spencer in 2001 made a special trip to the Dickinson family compound and recorded this minimal, blues-based, ultra-distorted, smokin’ hot batch of rock and roll tunes. Playing with North Mississippi All-Star brothers Cody and Luther Dickinson, with dad Jim Dickinson manning the boards, Spencer laid down some of the roughest, least premeditated rock and blues cuts of his career. Distributed only in Japan at the time of its 2001 release, the disc built a word of mouth reputation over the past few years. It has recently been expanded with seven new songs and unleashed on an American market, most of which cannot possibly be ready for it.
Even before the addition of new material, the disc must have been wildly uneven, with some cuts coalescing into mesmerizing grooves and others simply vamping on endlessly over grunts and uhs. The first twelve cuts are from the original batch, in the original order, which seems, on the face of it, to have been completely random. “That’s a Drag”, clearly one of the five or six standouts, kicks these off with a stomp-the-doors-down soul guitar riff and Spencer’s certified vocal strut. It is followed by the tribally drummed, electrified yelp of “I’m Not Ready”, as elementally rock and Saturday-night-friendly as anything on the disc. This leads oddly into “My Body (My Only Friend)”, a cut which literally shimmers with Delta heat. With its guitar line warping in the heat, the cut sounds a good deal like Spencer’s later Heavy Trash song, “Under the Waves”, simultaneously rooted in blues tradition and deeply, weirdly eccentric.
The style jumps come hard and fast as the album progresses through percussion-heavy, blues-repetitive (and honestly, kind of tedious) “Primitive”, leading into the 1960s rock glories of “Saturday Morning Cartoon”. The Jimi-ish histrionics of “The Flood (The Awful Truth, the Living End)” cannot segue smoothly into a laid back, semi-acoustic “Cryin’”. You can find a groove inside the songs, but the flow from one to another is rough. The highs, though, are very high indeed—peaking with the uproarious call and response of “Why?”, which sounds like Sly and the Family Stone locked in a musical wrestling match with the early Rolling Stones.
The “new” cuts, drawn from the same sessions as the previously released material, are just as uneven and, in spots, just as good as the rest. There’s a lovely, pastoral “Appalachia”, all shimmering quick-strummed guitar lines, and “Love Without a Smile” is one of the disc’s best rockers. But the closing “I’m So Alone” extracts all the juice out of its blues guitar riff in the first three minutes, less than one third of the way through.
There’s good stuff here, even great stuff, and without question Spencer found a fantastic rhythm section at the Dickinson household. Still, The Man Who Lived for Love could be a classic album at eight cuts, or a very good one at 12. At eighteen tracks, it often devolves into a frustrating slog from one great song to another.