Say what you will about Jon Spencer, but he is not one to beat around the bush. Even from his early, noisy beginnings, Spencer has never been coy: Pussy Galore and their “hatefuck” music proved that (both in title and output). Because his shtick — dirty, sleazy blues deconstruction — has been apparent (sometimes to the point of tedium) from the get-go, listeners have periodically accused him of monotony and one-dimensionality. Although his career has progressed considerably following his formation of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, those questions have persisted, sometimes with validity, but more often without. Plastic Fang (2002) and Damage (2004) helped slightly to answer the doubts, but the following eight-year hiatus certainly did not; in fact, it threatened to render them archaic.
Now, having progressed well into middle age, the members of JSBX have returned with Meat + Bone, an album that, contrary to expectations, looks backward toward their youth, instead of making a concerted effort to age gracefully. This regression isn’t a necessarily a bad thing, though; to the contrary, in a musical culture that is too often schizophrenic — placing heavy demand on artists to change and then condemning them when they do — Jon Spencer is a breath of fresh air. Meat + Bone is a perfect example of this, bringing enough tight rock n’ roll energy to make us realize that all our questions about diversification (or lack thereof) in Spencer’s music were thoroughly missing the point: JSBX do what they do, and they do it damn well.
The album makes this statement pretty much right out of the gates, with the blistering, noisy opener “Black Mold.” I have to admit my bias here, because, while the song is excellent, its primal groove, Spencer’s elastic wail and the abrasive, repetitious riffing amount to a pitch-perfect (and quality) Stooges impression, which is something that will nearly always appeal to me. In fact, this extends to the first two tracks, which are decidedly proto-punk: the following track, “Bag of Bones,” is dead-on New York Dolls, right down to the sleazy, half-spoken word delivery and the intermittent harmonica breaks. Whereas this would be (and has been) galling from most other artists, Jon Spencer pulls it off with aplomb, primarily due to the fact that he thoroughly embodies the spirit of those monolithic ’70s hard rockers. The consciousness of this stylistic recollection is indicated towards the middle of “Bag of Bones,” at which point Spencer yells out, regressing through the decades, to an unseen audience: “Do you remember the nine-teen-seventies!?” Yes, Jon, I do; thank you for reminding me.
However, for the next track, “Boot Cut,” JSBX shifts gears. Opening with interlocking guitars that could have been salvaged from Queens of the Stone Age’s Songs for the Deaf, it then launches into a distorted, rumbling rocker that more than manages to keep up the breakneck tempo of the opening pair. Coming off a solid three-song run, JSBX then progresses into “Get Your Pants Off,” a demented, largely instrumental funk meandering that recalls the inside-out distortions of Pussy Galore and early Blues Explosion albums.
From there, the album transitions into what could best be described as a “fuzzy” section, in which Spencer plays up his noise proclivities. In these three tracks, he begins to jack up and distort the bass so it sounds like it’s being played through a wool coat, and throws in a handful of odd, hodgepodge sound effects. “Ice Cream Killer,” the first of these, does an excellent job of retaining the outright swagger that makes this album so attractive, and “Strange Baby” gets a lot of mileage out of what is apparently a nod to Tom Waits. The second `baby’ song, “Bottle Baby,” is an irony-laden garage rocker with a hefty dose of attitude, displayed in wonderful couplets such as, “Standing up at the podium holding this fabulous statuette / I feel like a god, but I still got a problem paying the rent.” Spencer’s languid delivery slowly builds in tension to the final line, where he screams “get the fuck off the stage!” This serves as a perfect segue to “Danger” (or is it “Rise Above”?), which echoes the hardcore punk of the ’80s, with the addition of a Stones-y flair, a quality that reappears in “Unclear,” essentially an Exile on Main Street song covered in sludge. Spencer revisits his Iggy Pop impression for “Bear Trap,” a lurching mountain of pure blues rock and another one of the best songs on the album, which then leads into the album closer, “Zimgar,” a psychedelic, Dadaist freakout that recalls Captain Beefheart’s avant genius.
“It’s the year 3030, and here at the Corporate Institutional Bank of Time, we find ourselves reflecting; finding out, that in fact, we came back – we were always coming back.” Those are the opening lines to Deltron 3030, but they’re equally appropriate here. With Meat + Bone, JSBX find themselves looking back, and, in the process, reveal that they were always looking back. The product, unsurprisingly, is like most of Spencer’s early output: inconsistent, maverick, littered with allusions to other artists, and occasionally brilliant. They may not have changed, but when these guys can still bring a ruckus like this, does that really matter?