Review Summary: "Blues explosion!"
Goddamn I love that rock and roll. I love the scuzzy, sloppy energy. I love the groove and the distortion. I love the sweat and alcohol fueled barrage of noise and rhythm to create something special and sensational. And that's good for my impression of this album, because that's exactly what The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion provides on Orange. The band plays with what seems to be wild irreverence, and the whole thing feels like a big jam session or concert in some dingy club, but the upon closer inspection is much more calculated. That's what makes the album great; you can lose yourself in the energy, but the energy holds up to scrutiny, presenting a very convincing and engaging package.
Album opener "Bellbottoms" could serve as a thesis for what the band is trying to do here. Guitar and drum downbeats punctuate the opening seconds before a funky, disco string section joins the band for about the first minute and a half. The song winds without conventional structure, the band shouting, Mr. Spencer crooning into the mic, and the instruments all playing in a dissonant and tight groove. The song crescendos and accelerates, feeling very cohesive in an improvised sort of way. The whole thing is quite bombastic antithetical, overdone strings contrasting with dirty and noisy rockabilly, which is exactly the sort of atmosphere the band is trying to create. They'e unapologetic, energetic, and indulge in every experiment fully. Here there is no subtlety or half-assery.
And of course the epitome of this indulgent excess is the vocal stylizing of front-man Jon Spencer. He does not sing so much as deliver an Elvis-esque Monologue with occasional bursts of Frank Black shouting or a voice that sounds like an even more nasally reincarnation of Stephen Tyler (such as on "Cowboy" and "Brenda"). It's a voice slicked back with grease, doused with gasoline and cheap whiskey, and stuffed with amphetamines. The content of this monologue is pretty consistent, shifting between lists of cities, discussions of how much his girlfriend likes to ***, and the obligatory shout of "Blues explosion!" which you will probably hear no fewer than ten times per song. Essentially, the vocals are the most obvious reason as to why you will either love or hate this album. It's very in your face and bombastic and somehow comes across as completely genuine, which is perhaps the most remarkable part about in light of the slight tongue in cheek so many revival bands have. (see: Colin Meloy's live album.)
While most of the songs on the album are a bit shorter and more cohesive than "Bellbottoms," they all differ in a way quite unique to the band, allowing the album to be both diverse and cohesive. We hear squealing saxophones, barrages of noise, sexy synthesizers, and guest musicians (a lo-fi rap segment courtesy Beck serves as a coda to "Flavor") weave in and out of the standard four-part rock arrangements and add significant depth and variety to the album. They can be remarkably subtle augmentations, such as on "Orange" where the strings appear only as a faint, rhythmic pizzicato, and show both the bombast of the product and the care and sensitivity in which that bombast was achieved.
The care and complexity took a while to sink in, for me. Often, what reaches your ears first is so in-your-face that the multiple layers of style, genre experimentation, and subtle layering were lost under the barrage of the shouting, noise, and distorted guitar. This is by no means a pretty album, but there's something special about it. It makes you feel precisely how you are supposed to feel while listening to it, and that in itself is a feat.
-Blues X Man