The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Freedom Tower: No Wave Dance Party 2015
(Mom + Pop; 2015)
By Maura McAndrew | 5 May 2015
Freedom Tower, the ninth proper album by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and their second since their official 2012 reunion, begins with the exhortation: “Come on, fellas! We got to pay respect!” To what, exactly, Spencer doesn’t say. But if you know the Blues Explosion, you know that this is one of the band’s tenants: respect, celebration, and love for rock ‘n’ roll (and, of course, its godfather: blues). From their early career and up through their current elder statesmen-hood (the dreaded term), JSBX have clearly positioned themselves as part of a lineage and also as scholars of said lineage: working to carry the tradition of American music while constantly analyzing and annotating it, viewing it as though through a cracked mirror, with distortion, refraction, and omission. Their best work has been alternately dark and angry (my personal favorite, 1996’s Now I Got Worry) and loose and offbeat (1994 breakthrough Orange). But they always hold that thread, and often tie it in knots. Freedom Tower is more in the “loose and offbeat” camp than its predecessor, the somewhat heavy Meat and Bone (2012), and as its subtitle indicates, it’s a serious party record—serious in that JSBX, as anyone who’s seen them live can attest, take what they do quite seriously. But it’s a party in its abandon, its concentrated ridiculousness, and its mission to amplify echoes of rock ‘n’ roll past until they shatter our eardrums to pieces.
Having expressed my love for the band’s frontman and namesake a few times in the past, this time I’d like to take a moment to sing the praises of JSBX’s lead guitarist, Judah Bauer. Bauer is the consummate humble right-hand man, who once bluntly admitted in an interview (one of the only solo Bauer interviews I could find) that he “didn’t come up with the [band’s] name. My priority back then was getting high.” Now clean for years, Bauer still seems content to stand in Spencer’s shadow onstage, but provides, more and more, the foundation for the band’s sound. More than Meat and Bone, Freedom Tower creates space enough for us to hear each player in this powerful trio and how their various parts come together. And in that space, Bauer’s versatile guitar sounds more thrilling than ever.
Take “Wax Dummy,” perhaps the best song on Freedom Tower. Here Bauer’s guitar is truly the centerpiece, with Spencer’s vocals taking a backseat. As Spencer rants and raves, Bauer answers with taunting, hair metal-adjacent licks, adding a wordless punchline. Here, Bauer demonstrates what makes him such a great guitarist—an insidious wit that somehow comes through in his technique, allowing him to play around while simultaneously maintaining the very fabric of the song. See “Crossroad Hop” for further proof—a super-groovy mixed-up jam that finds Bauer switching up his speed and approach ever so slightly over the song’s extended play-out. His range invigorates the similarly motley “The Ballad of Joe Buck” and “Dial Up Doll,” whose woozy Bauer-Spencer breakdown is one of the record’s bright spots. Jon Spencer is, of course, the band’s leader; he’s the constant, always more or less the same, which works well since there’s no one else like him. Bauer, however, is the one subtly changing colors, the sly catalyst in a band that works together so seamlessly, after all these years.
According to Spencer, Freedom Tower was partly inspired by New York punk in the ’70s and ’80s, and there is a slightly more specific sense of place here than on other JSBX records. Jon Spencer’s New York is not like any real, recognizable city however, but more like a scary cartoon, a comic book nightmare (see “Bellevue Baby” and “Dial Up Doll”). This is not due to any actual description as much as a feeling, conjured by Spencer’s howling and Russel Simins’s deep, stuttering drums. The best New York-related song on the record is “Betty vs. the NYPD,” with its catchy, frantic refrain, “BETTY! Unlock the door!” Another, “Tales of Old New York,” winks at the band’s aging hipster-ism, beginning with micro-clips from band interviews (the first beginning “In the ’90s…”). The sound of the record is not any more punk or no wave than usual JSBX, though there is more variety here than on Meat and Bone. “Do the Get Down” recalls Orange in its funky ’90s Beck sound, and closer “Cooking for Television” recalls the band’s pop-ier work on Acme (and features some top-notch Spencer ranting about “chatterboxes” on TV).
In “Wax Dummy,” Spencer sings, “Silence is at the end of it all / So suck it up, baby, have a ball,” thus summing up the mission of Freedom Tower. JSBX can be angry band, a serious band, a meticulous band; but most of the time, they’re a fun band. With a style that has occasionally been criticized as ironic appropriation, the Blues Explosion’s goal is really to lift up the music of their heroes, all while poking holes in the worn-through fabric of rock ‘n’ roll history, mystery, and legend. Freedom Tower is a Blues Explosion record, no doubt, and in that sense it’s not for everyone. But for those who love rock ’n’ roll, who live for rock ’n’ roll: come on, fellas. We’ve got to pay respect.