The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion : Extra Width/Mo’ Width (reissue)

Jeff Terich

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The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion doesn’t play blues. They play rock ‘n’ roll. Spencer said so, himself, in the band’s Automator-produced 1998 single “Talk About the Blues.” But ask Keith Richards or Jimmy Page-rock ‘n’ roll and blues aren’t all that different when you get right down to it. And as a rock ‘n’ roll band, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion wore their blues and soul influences on their tailored coat sleeves and leather pants inseams. This served as both an attraction for some and a deterrent for others, depending on which side one falls on the scale of Spencer’s hammy vocal performances. But, as odd as it sounds, it’s also what made them different. Blues-based rock was old news by the early ’90s, but in a lo-fi field increasingly crowded by stoned slacker rock groups like Sebadoh and Pavement, the JSBX were an out of control bonfire that threatened to set ablaze any impressionable listener that dare come near it.

That very fire began with the band’s 1992 debut, but its even more impressive successor, Extra Width, was the proverbial can of gasoline that sent those flames soaring. As the band’s Matador debut, it kicked off the massive psychedelic groove that continued on through 1994’s Orange and 1996’s Now I Got Worry, the first of an unstoppable trio of albums that revealed the band at their most furious and raw. Spencer and fellow guitarist Judah Bauer turn the dials on their fuzzboxes as high as they’ll go and proceed to blast out some of the most mind-melting punk blues ever captured on reel-to-real. It’s messy and over the top. Frankly, it wouldn’t be The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion if it wasn’t a little ridiculous. But damn is it good.

Extra Width‘s first track, “Afro,” is perhaps the greatest single that the band ever recorded. Blasting off with a massive riff worthy of a Stooges anthem, the song descends into a down and dirty wah-wah groove, as Spencer mutters his sing-speak toward a blazing guitar solo. It’s a perfect, three-minute capsule of the band’s greatest strengths, and massively enjoyable 17 years down the line. Few songs on the album reach a level quite so funkily monolithic, but the highlights come fast and frequently, from the sexy strut of “History of Lies,” to the skronky “Backslider,” the organ-fueled acid trip of “Soul Typecast” and the Cramps-style rockabilly stomp of “Pant Leg.”

As part of a series of Spencer reissues being released this year via Shout! Factory, Extra Width has been quadrupled in size. While the original album is presented in its already badass state, it’s backed up with the outtakes and rarities compilation Mo’ Width, in addition to an entire extra disc of bonus material, which boasts live material, a handful of Christmas songs and other rare gems. It goes without saying that a wealth of bonus material spanning three times the original album is a lot, maybe too much, but whether or not it’s all essential, there’s plenty of fun to interesting stuff to check out, including harmonica jam “Johnson,” old school rocker “Out of Luck,” sloppy jam session “Lion Cut” and the goofy “Yule Log Boogie.”

Listeners’ miles may vary on the bonus material, but after the band’s six year absence, and the additional decade since this album was released, Extra Width sounds surprisingly vital and fresh. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion wasn’t the first band to mutilate blues into their own hideous rock ‘n’ roll beast, and they certainly won’t be the last. But the abrasive grooves of Extra Width make clear the uniqueness of JSBX’s approach, and the level of energy and fire the New York trio put into their sonic mutations. This isn’t blues, this maybe isn’t even rock ‘n’ roll, but it remains an exciting artifact for anyone who gives even half a shit about either.

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