Heavy Trash marks the official union of soul-mates Matt Verta-Ray and Jon Spencer. Both artists have shaken and rattled America’s holiest spirits with their respective bands: Verta-Ray with the revved up roots of his aptly-named Speedball Baby; and Spencer with the beat-knocking (Jon Spencer) Blues Explosion. The two have collaborated in the past, but within the realm of a preexisting band. For Heavy Trash, the two shed the skins of their groups, and re-explore their favorite aspects of the foundation of American music: the strut, the sleaze, the sorry. Rehearsing and recording at their leisure in Verta-Ray’s Lower East Side studio, the album spans the range of their perverse fancies. Verta-Ray and Spencer once again flirt with the dirt, but they approach it with an intelligence and charm that makes Heavy Trash a breeze of a listen.
The immediate contrast between Trash and the past work of Verta-Ray and Spencer is the lack of sonic density. “Dark Hair’d Rider” opens the album at an easy cowpoke stroll, intentionally stripped down to twanging guitars, humpty dump double bass, and light cymbals. Coupled with mellow engineering, Verta-Ray’s Gene Vincent vocals cut through the mix, and lead the song. As is the case with the entire album, each composition is carefully arranged to give each instrument an appropriate place.
Trash by no means throws Verta-Ray’s and Spencer’s past to the wayside. The title alone of the album opener invokes the off-color past of the two: “Black Eyed Girl” and “Blackish Man” have added a new member to their posse, while Verta-Ray deals in the BX: “Dirty Back Slider / Tell me what’s your game.” Trash also uses subtle touches of modernism, such as feedbacking guitars and tape loops, to throw off the traditionally arranged oldies. Much to Verta-Ray’s and Spencer’s strengths, Trash excels by looking to the past from a comfortable position in the present.
The interplay between Verta-Ray and Spencer subsequently becomes an amiable quality of the record. Spencer counters the lovelorn lilt of his pahdna with oohs and hot’cha swagger as he raps over the rockabilly strut-fest “Lover Street”. While Verta-Ray’s clear yodel adds a distinct component to each mix, Spencer’s instrument is attitude; sharing octave space with the baritone guitar, he quickly jumps up to stop and restart the song with a resounding, “Hey baby, your momma’s a ho!” The contrast is clear in “Walking Bum”, where Verta-Ray’s strained but clear sustains push the song along. Dipping up and down, he brings out the drama of lines like, “Down in the valley / Over the hill tonight.” The two defy expectations by swapping characters at each corner. Spencer fills the saddle of sentimentality on “Fix These Blues” and “Take My Hand”. In the former, he conjures the tender Sticky Fingers ballads he has shown a predilection for of late in “Blues”. The shimmer is subdued, like those Stones icons: whirling organs, yawning pedal steel, jangling acoustics, and echoing hollow-bodies. “Hand” digs deeper via the doo wop, as Spencer speaks and swings low. Meanwhile, Verta-Ray whoops’n hollers his way alongside a hooting harmonica all the way through “This Day is Mine”. The two trade roles both with each other and with their selves, simply indulging in the character of each composition.
The graceful faculty with which the two produce music can work to their detriment at times. While “The Loveless” pumps and parades like a dirt-bag Doll, it is still recorded with a clean sheen: each instrument is recorded in its own space; vocals are echoed but crisp and clear; drums are never too out of control. Coupled with, “Eatin’ fried potatoes and drinkin’ gasoline”, the slurred lines quickly emerge as boho slummin’. But the two appreciate the fun of ogglin’ and ooglin’. And, quite frankly, they consistently write infectious and well-crafted songs. “Justine Alright” opens with a contrived burp, but reveals a rocker built on a wonderful implied sense of flurry; guitar and hand-claps take the lead against percussion initially to establish a tension that makes the drum’s eventual entrance more dramatic. This attention to detail is precisely what raises Verta-Ray and Spencer above the fracas of normality, the trash they idolize.
Although the name of the band/album implies a feeling of fullness, Heavy Trash in fact breezes through the shtuff and jumps instead in the loving embrace of fun. Plenty of friends (mostly from Verta-Ray’s camp) understandably join the fracas: Lily Wolfe of Parker and Lily; Christina Campanella of recent Speedball Baby records, and another Parker and Lily alum; Chris Lee, for whom Verta-Ray has engineered for; and many others. Each song is clean, but resists additional mothering. Hardly heavy, sparingly trashy, Heavy Trash is everything it purports to be. Wink, wink.