That the fidelity, equalization and overall sound found on a vinyl recording is unmatched by any other musical medium to date is a claim which has been proven several times over in many places by a great many people (including by several in this column, several times over too), and one of the great examples can be found on a vinyl copy of Spencer Sings The Hits – Jon Spencer’s debut solo album.
On Spencer Sings The Hits, Jon Spencer remains very much within his musical comfort zone (the dirty shirt blues, roots and rhythm and blues forms the singer has developed and refined are all here) even if he has deliberately left the Blues Explosion behind, and let’s the compositional variants created by the absence of guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins take to the foreground as well as having a bit of fun with the expanded sonic possibilities that vinyl affords.
As soon as the needle touches down at the opening of the album’s A-side and “The Trash Can” screeches to life, listeners will understand precisely where Jon Spencer is at. Here, the musical assistance offered by multi-instrumentalist Sam Coomes and drummer M. Sord stomps forward like a juggernaut and introduces much of what is different about Spencer Sings The Hits from any and all of the albums by the Blues Explosion as well as what is different from the CD release of the same material; there is the analogue warmth which comes with vinyl, but also some phenomenal crunch and distortion so thick it’s possible to hear static shaking off of the house speakers at Key Club Recording in Benton Harbor, Michigan, where the album was recorded. This incredible power and only narrowly contained frenzy will hold fans of all of Spencer’s myriad projects hypnotized; in fits of excitement for whatever may come next.
…And Spencer does not leave listeners wanting, as the A-side of Spencer Sings The Hits progresses. After “The Trash Can,” both singer and band get a little more nihilist but let the guitar tones that fans know and love out for air at the same time for “Fake” (as well as bowing to what some of Spencer’s detractors have complained about, over the years, as lines like “Your shit is fake/ Corny as hell/ Ideas are flat/ And you’re out of tune/ Your whole schtick is tired, baby/ Counterfeit, punk” present both all those complaints as well as a square-jawed reaction against them), then overloading Coomes’ synths with some ghostly howling for “Overload” before taking things back to the Acme era with “Time 2 Be Bad,” inverting some old digital time delay effects for “Ghost” before closing the side with “Beetle Boots.”
There, the guitarist simultaneously calls out the lines he’s been howling for decades (“Who wants to be in a band? Who wants to rock n’ roll?”) while also playfully teasing other musicians he’s known over the years (the “I don’t want that fake stuff, stop playing with a butterknife” feels like it might be a shot taken at both Fat Possum Records and CeDell Davis – who was one of that label’s longest-lived performers, until recently) as well as warning others that nothing good comes easy when you’re working in the music industry (“You think it’s easy to be in a band?/ Wrong priorities, misguided intentions/ ironic distance just reinforces conventions”) – but that the whole thing is clearly a celebration is impossible to miss and really ends the side on a fantastic note. “Beetle Boots” leaves listeners truly believing that, even without the Blues Explosion, Spencer’s power to deliver fantastic rock fury isn’t at all diminished.
After one sets up the B-side of Spencer Sings The Hits and sets it spinning, listeners will understand immediately that the difference between the sensations inspired by the B-side aren’t much different from the A-, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some fantastic fireworks. After “Hornet” opens the side with a scruffy guitar workout to warm up, for example, the ringing of enormous bells threatens to take listeners’ heads clean off at the shoulders. The ring from that bell is meticulous in its tone (those who know are aware that capturing the sound properly means getting the unruly reverberation which comes off of the imperfections in the cast from which the bell was made) and will shock those who hear it to attention immediately.
It’s then that they’ll pick up just how sexy/raunchy the keyboard licks in the song are and the crunchy beat which accompanies them. Needless to say, the hook will be set deep into listeners immediately on the B-side of Spencer Sings The Hits, just as was the case on the A-.
…And hooked is just where they’ll stay through the second side, just as they did for the first. “Wilderness” sees the thick low end which characterized “Hornet” spill over nicely with the added benefit of a sweet and mellow bridge before “Love Handle” cross-wires some sweet and smooth R&B noodling with some “sophisticated humor, politics and culture” and helps the record circle back to some more dirty shirt rock n’ roll.
After the peak that is the album’s title track plays through, “Alien Humidity” sort of squeals and implodes – complete with honking feedback which sounds more than a little like the muted trumpet sound which played the role of the teacher’s voice in Peanuts cartoons – and then “Cape” sweeps up for the endgame to neatly close the album with some twelve-bar blues passed through some sludgy guitar tone. Some of the newer blood who are just beginning to follow Spencer may scoff and say such an end is just entirely too easy for an album which is so gloriously unruly elsewhere, but longtime fans will recognize “Cape” for precisely what it is: the rollout intended to salve nerves after the succession of blasts that listeners absorbed earlier in the album’s running. “Cape” is the close that longtime Spencer fans expect; in the tradition of tracks like “Blowing My Mind,” “Mean Heart,” “Torture,” “Sticky” and “Greyhound” on Blues Explosion albums gone by, “Cape” slows down the rush, allows everything to cool off and just lets listeners breathe a heavy sigh as the needle lifts from the album. It’s the end that fans expect – and “Cape” leaves them satisfied.
Standing back from Spencer Sings The Hits, there’s no doubt that listeners will happily sing their satisfaction for this album from the highest places they have available to them, but they’ll also agree that, while Sings The Hits does feature some familiar structures and ideas, it is unique beast unto itself. Simply said, there’s no denying that this album is a personal one for Spencer; this is where he takes the opportunity to show longtime fans who he is and what things about the music he has been attaching his name to for decades are really his. In that regard, it could be contended that Spencer Sings The Hits needed to be a solo album; to paraphrase the band itself, what the Blues Explosion does is Jon Spencer’s sweat, but Sings The Hits is Jon Spencer’s soul.
(In The Red/Shove)
Further Reading: Jon Spencer – Spencer Sings The Hits – [CD review] http://www.groundcontrolmag.com/jon-spencer-album/
Jon Spencer LIVE with The Hitmakers:
01/11/19 – Philadelphia, PA – Johnny Brenda’s – Tickets
01/12/19 – Washington, DC – Black Cat (main stage) – Tickets
01/13/19 – Richmond, VA – Richmond Music Hall (Capital Ale House) – Tickets
01/14/19 – Durham, NC – Motorco Music Hall – Tickets
01/15/19 – Asheville, NC – Grey Eagle – Tickets
01/16/19 – Atlanta, GA – The Earl – Tickets
01/17/19 – Birmingham, AL – Saturn – Tickets
01/18/19 – New Orleans, LA – One Eyed Jacks – Tickets
01/19/19 – Houston, TX – House of Blues – Bronze Peacock – Tickets
01/20/19 – Austin, TX – 3TEN ACL – Tickets
01/21/19 – San Antonio, TX – Paper Tiger – Tickets
01/22/19 – Dallas, TX – Club Dada – Tickets
01/23/19 – Little Rock, AR – Stickyz – Tickets
01/24/19 – Memphis, TN – Hi-Tone Café – Tickets
01/25/19 – Nashville, TN – Exit/In – Tickets
01/26/19 – Knoxville, TN – Pilot Light – Tickets
01/27/19 – Charlotte, NC – Side Stage at the Neighborhood Theatre – Tickets
01/28/19 – Virginia Beach, VA – Bunker Brewpub & Cadence Hall – Tickets
01/29/19 – Harrisonburg, VA – The Golden Pony – Tickets
01/30/19 – Lancaster, PA – Chameleon Club – Tickets
01/31/19 – Brooklyn, NY – Rough Trade – Tickets
02/01/19 – Allston, MA – Great Scott – Tickets
02/02/19 – Pawtucket, RI – The Met – Tickets
Find Jon Spencer at:
In The Red Records