n 1994, when they dumped Orange into our laps, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion seemed like a trio of smart-ass heroin addicts rocking some filthy back alley full of bums and derelicts. In 2002, with the release of Plastic Fang , the band has moved out of the street and into a smoky honky tonk, setting up behind a chain-link fence with nothing but two guitars, a trap kit and a bottle of Wild Turkey.
The Blues Explosion has more often than not rocked, but on Plastic Fang they finally roll. This is a mature, Stones-y album that sees the band shedding a great deal of their schticky obnoxiousness and replacing it with great guitar hooks, fine vocal melodies, thick, warm production and restraint. Admittedly, these characteristics were nowhere to be found on Orange , and Plastic Fang has nothing on that album, but let’s face facts: it has been eight years; something had to change. No one needs another Orange , and based on the band’s most recent releases, they seem to be incapable of recreating its madness. Not to worry. Plastic Fang is surprisingly good.
In fact, each of the album’s first five songs are fantastic. “Sweet N Sour” wastes no time kicking off the album with a deep, driving, up-tempo groove. Spencer’s shouting of “rock n roll” is pretty stupid, but his vocals have come a long way. The simple, strutting “She Said” follows. Replete with Keith Richards-y harmonies, hand claps and the first of many werewolf references, “She Said” would stir many a biker bar into a frenzy. “Money Rock N Roll” is a rapid, chugging locomotive of twisting guitars; “Killer Wolf” is as restrained and melancholy as the band has ever been and is also the first Blues Explosion song I can remember that has ever been carried by killer vocals; “Midnight Creep” grabs you by both ears with sawing reverb, a mercilessly pounded acoustic guitar and an ass-shaking swing.
With “Hold On”, however, the Blues Explosion begins reverting to their old tricks; “old” because they’re worn out, “tricks” because we figure them out the instant they are revealed. The song begins slowly, with Spencer calling out “baby” and “Blues Explosion” before an all-too-familiar drum shuffle and a simple, repetitive guitar line slump into the mix. Spencer’s quiet, in-your-ear vocals are creepier than they are encouraging. When he tells us to “hold on”, he is supposed to sound like the guy on the next barstool. Instead, he sounds like the guy standing an inch behind you while you try to take a piss. “Down In the Beast” follows suit, utilizing a disturbingly “Bad to the Bone”-ish beat and too few inspired moments to justify its four-and-a-half minute length. “Over and Over” is just plain dull.
The remainder of the album is a combination of the album’s early greatness and the staleness of its third quarter. “Shakin’ Rock N Roll Tonight” is classic Blues Explosion -- fast, reckless, dumb -- but self-flagellation is inserted where a decent chorus should have gone. The choruses of “Mean Heart” contain some heavy, backwoods AC/DC-isms, but said AC/DC-isms make the song’s verses seem sparse by comparison. “Point of View” could have been a fine album closer but, like a handful of the songs here, it is stretched longer than it should have been in order to make room for Blues Explosion gimmicks that seemed musty on Now I Got Worry . Luckily, these mistakes don’t dominate the album.
So feel free to weave your way up to the stage, loop your fingers into the fence and feel the new sweat of the Blues Explosion. The majority of the performance will make you dance, but there will be moments where you’ll find yourself talking to a friend or making your way to the bar to grab another drink. But if you walk out early, you’re going to regret it.
Reviewed by: Clay Jarvis
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01