In the late ’90s, indie rock was undergoing a strange kind of transformation. Sub Pop and Matador Records were releasing albums by electronic and hip-hop acts. Trip-hop was going lo-fi. Lo-fi was going hi-fi. And this was just alright with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Though the band adhered pretty strongly to their mutant blues schtick for more than half a decade by the time 1998 arrived, they had done so while embracing remixes and beats, playing a style of music that was just as removed from the classic blues aesthetic as it was inspired by it. So when the odd, atypically produced and stylistically playful Acme was released, it didn’t seem entirely out of character for the New York City trio.
In early 1998, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion recorded the tracks for what would become their fifth album with Steve Albini. From there, the band lined up a dream team of producers and remixers to leave their mark on the tracks, including Dan the Automator, Calvin Johnson and Alec Empire. The album that’s pieced together from these sessions is at once one of the most fractured takes on the JSBX sound ever assembled, and yet it’s also one of the most accessible items in their catalog.
The first single released from Acme, “Talk About the Blues,” is probably best known for its video featuring Winona Ryder doing her best Spencer impersonation. But the song actually makes a fairly fiery mission statement, and the band’s own, slightly more polite “Bring the Noise,” with Spencer telling listeners and Rolling Stone: “I don’t play no blues/ I play… rock ‘n’ rolllll!!!!” But Acme is even pretty far removed from what one might usually recognize as a rock ‘n’ roll record. That single boasts hip-hop beats and discordant samples courtesy of Dan the Automator, while the Calvin Johnson-produced “Calvin” is a playful trip through thrift store record finds, and Alec Empire employs his Digital Harcore chaos filter on the messy, distorted clusterfuck of “Attack.”
Weird and scattered as Acme is, it boasts some exceptional rock songs on the part of Spencer, Judah Bauer and Russell Simins. “Green Blue Olga,” a duet with Luscious Jackson’s Jill Cunniff, is a delicious slab of greasy funk, while “Give Me A Chance” stomps with garage rock swagger. “Torture,” another Automator production, is sprinkled with lots of neat flourishes, including a recurrent twinkle of piano and some old-timey voices. And “Magical Colors” is simply a sweet and soulful standout, loaded with thick Hammond organ.
Shout Factory’s deluxe treatment of Acme, much like the three preceding it, is fully loaded with extra material, including the entirety of the companion Xtra Acme USA album, and a series of outtakes. Alec Empire reappears as producer again on “New Year,” distorting the living hell out of the track, which is sufficiently rocking, while Foetus’ J.G. Thirlwell lends his industrial-swing machinery to “Lap Dance” and Techno Animal’s Justin Broadrick turns “Bacon” gangsta. But the original and/or alternate versions on Xtra Acme USA provide a different set of treats, from the string-laden drama of the original version of “Bacon” to the Automator’s playful old-school take on “Lovin’ Machine” and the absurd jam-skit “Soul Trance.”
By the time The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion released Acme, most people had already made up their minds about the band, only to find that the group had quite a few more tricks up their sleeves. Acme isn’t the definitive JSBX release, but it’s certainly one of the more interesting and no doubt enjoyable. And for an album whose central concept seems inextricably tied to the late ’90s, it hasn’t lost any of its charm.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.