You know, despite what the average frat guy’s record collection would lead you to believe, it doesn’t take a blotter sheet of acid and a taste for Phish to know how to jam. Jon Spencer and his Blues Explosion used to be well aware of this, and that’s why their Orange and Now I Got Worry albums, as well as 1996’s collaboration with R.L. Burnside on A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, rank amongst the best rock ‘n’ roll records of the decade.
Last year Spencer and Co. lost sight of their ability to take a hook and roll with it, and their attempt at indie-rock stardom came off as a calculated, obnoxious disaster; their Acme was arguably one of the worst albums of 1998 and easily the year’s most pretentious. Rather than ride his band’s obvious gift for groove, Spencer sought out collaborators like Luscious Jackson’s Jill Cunniff and Dan “The Automator” Nakamura who sucked out the fun and shot Acme up with hipster schlock. Thankfully, before recording that album, the Blues Explosion layed down some tracks with Dub Narcotic’s Calvin Johnson which haven’t seen the light of day until now, and those tracks show none of the overproduction which dragged Acme down like a two-ton anchor.
Sideways Soul, the result of that session with Johnson, is quite possibly the funkiest work the Blues Explosion has ever done. Despite being recorded just before Acme, Sideways Soul is an experimental, bluesy hell of a jam. Rather than aim to please the critics who’ve consistently hammered his band, Spencer kicks back and spits out nine tracks of gritty, funky rock with feeling. Johnson’s obviously in similar spirits, and his shouts of “The music ain’t loud enough!” on “Banana Version,” Sideways Soul‘s opening cut, are a perfect summation of the album—fuck the critics, let’s just turn this baby UP!
And they do. Track after track shows the band and Johnson growing louder and spacier and funkier than they’ve ever been before. “Fudgy the Whale” gives props to a dance craze that ought to sweep the nation if it’s as cool as the song devoted to it, while on “Love Ain’t On the Run” bassist Judah Bauer goes for the jugular and bangs out lines as funky as the best of Prince. By the time the final song rolls around, “Calvin’s On a Bummer,” where the band plays around with the hook that would ultimately become Acme‘s “Talk About the Blues,” every sleazy stone in rock ‘n’ roll has been picked up and thrown onto the album.
With all of its experimentation, it’s impossible for Sideways Soul to avoid its share of missteps. Jeff Smith’s organ playing is consistently adventurous and at times drifts from messy fun to just plain weird. The lazy “Frosty Junction” never finds the hook it’s looking for, and Johnson’s vocals occasionally have nothing to do with the topics of Spencer’s singing. Still, none of Sideways Soul‘s missteps keep it from being a fresh, enjoyable album.
When Acme was released, it seemed easy to write off the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion as a band that had fallen from its peak. It seemed Spencer was far too caught up in answering critics to stick with the formula that had made him great, and it appeared that those who’d said he lacked heart might have been right after all. But with the free-spirited raucous jams of Sideways Soul, the Blues Explosion proves that as long as the sound stays loud, fun and groovy, there are few better bands in all of rock ‘n’ roll.