It’s hard to hear an album like Freedom Tower and realize that the members of long-lived NYC three-piece the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion have been doing their shtick for just shy of a quarter-century. Nobody else sounded like them back when they got their start back in 1991, and although their sound’s been cleaned up a little since then, Blues Explosion is still a band out of time. Both flaunting and transcending the group’s novelty-act status, frontman Jon Spencer still swaggers like the world’s coolest Elvis impersonator, drummer Russell Simins blends styles from a half-century’s worth of dance music like a human sampler, and Judah Bauer’s guitars are as funky as ever. Their shtick hasn’t changed much (opener “Funeral” is a dead ringer for 1994 single “Flavor”), but far as shtick goes, you could hardly do better than the Blues Explosion’s sui generis mixture of blues, rockabilly, hip-hop, and noise-rock elements — to say nothing of how Jon Spencer is pushing 50 but still doesn’t sound a day over 30.
The album’s revealing subtitle, “No Wave Dance Party”, tells you all about Freedom Tower‘s intent: the Blues Explosion wants to get your body moving, and they know just how to do it. The mood is upbeat and propulsive throughout, with nary a slow song in the bunch and only one track breaking the four-minute mark. The band’s stated M.O. with Freedom Tower was to celebrate New York City — the weird, grimy, beautiful place that Spencer and co. call home. Recorded at the Daptone House of Soul in Bushwick and mixed in Harlem by former Dälek member Alap “Oktopus” Momin, Freedom Tower is as heartfelt of a love letter to New York as any could have written — Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York”, it is most certainly not. With recent high-profile tributes to the city such as “Empire State of Mind” and the aforementioned Swift song focusing on the easy imagery of tourist-trap landmarks and ancient clichés, it’s great to hear respects being paid to the other side — a view of the five boroughs from ground level, where people without millions in their bank accounts live, dance, and party.
Although the high-octane cuts that make up Freedom Tower‘s 34 minutes and 32 seconds are all fun in their own way, some still outshine the others; Russell Simins’s energetic drumming makes “Born Bad” a particular highlight, the infectiously catchy “Betty vs. the NYPD”, possibly the album’s most classically “punk” statement, is an easy winner, and the time changes of “the Ballad of Joe Buck” make it the album’s most musically daring selection, as well as one of its most rewarding. There isn’t anything on the album that long-time fans haven’t heard before, but after 24 years together as a band (including a brief re-branding as “Blues Explosion” in the early ’00s), the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion have found a formula that works, and you can’t really argue with the results when the music is as good as it definitely is.