Holy Hell! Acme Turns 20

Holy Hell! Acme Turns 20

Spencer’s occasional “blaccent” certainly hasn’t aged well since 1998; but his freewheeling, devoutly unserious aesthetic remains evergreen.

Here’s a story straight out of 1998: the sessions for Acme, the sixth album by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, began when the group entered the studio with Dan “the Automator” Nakamura to work on a song for the Scream 2 soundtrack. The song they recorded—a limp cover of Dr. John’s 1973 hit “Right Place, Wrong Time”—isn’t on the album, but Nakamura went on to lend his talents to seven of its 13 tracks. If that isn’t enough to send you down memory lane, consider that Acme also features contributions by alt-rock super-engineer Steve Albini, K Records founder Calvin Johnson, Luscious Jackson frontwoman Jill Cunniff and Atari Teenage Riot DJ Alec Empire: a veritable time capsule of alternative rock and electronica at the turn of the millennium.

My own experience with Acme is, if anything, even more “1998.” I got the album via mail order from BMG Music Service—the late-‘90s competitor to Columbia House (younger readers, ask your older siblings). It remains the only Blues Explosion album I’ve ever owned in a physical medium. I can’t remember what drew me to it, though I suspect that the word “Blues” played a major role; I was in the midst of the Midwest-teen rite of passage that is discovering Led Zeppelin, with my interest further fueled by Chess Records’ 1997 series of 50th Anniversary CDs compiling many of the artists Zep had covered and/or plagiarized. Combined with the postmodern retro-cool signaling of Acme’s cover art—which called to mind Beck, easily the hippest artist my cloistered suburban upbringing had exposed me to—this would have been more than enough to put the album on my radar.

It’s this personal dimension that makes Acme feel especially time-bound to me. If I’d been just a couple years older, I would have known that its critical reception was somewhat muted—certainly in comparison to 1994’s Orange, the group’s breakout fourth album and first dalliance with the cut-and-paste turntablist aesthetics of the aforementioned Automator and Beck. But I was only 10 years old when Orange came out, and still in diapers when frontman Jon Spencer made his initial debut with garage-punk deconstructionists Pussy Galore. My introduction to the Blues Explosion was thus the literal blues explosion that begins Acme’s opening track “Calvin”: a crackle of vinyl static, a disembodied voice declaring “This is blues power!” and the sound of a dropping bomb, followed by a funk-blues guitar riff that grooves like a hip-hop sample. It may not have been the ideal introduction, but I was instantly hooked.

Even at the time, however, not all of Acme lived up to that opening bang. After “Calvin,” the band immediately shifts gears for “Magical Colors”: an organ-laced country-soul pastiche which Spencer delivers in an Elvis imper-uh-huh-sonation that is more hackneyed than hilarious. By the third track, “Do You Wanna Get Heavy?”, he’s donned another mask, affecting a problematic faux-Mississippi bluesman’s drawl for nonsensical lyrics about “boys” with names like Roscoe, Luther and Rufus. Both of these songs at least have the hooks to make up for their more obnoxious elements: the former with its joyous “let me hear you say ‘yeah’” breakdown and the latter with its titular call-and-response by contemporary doo-wop quartet the Four Dollars—who, unlike Spencer, happen to sing like Black men because they actually are.

Elsewhere, even Acme’s rich sonic textures fail to disguise its abundance of filler. The 45-and-a-half-minute runtime is actually restrained for an album released at the height of the CD era; but it feels significantly longer when one is slogging through forced anthems like “I Wanna Make It All Right,” a series of righteous rock-star poses signifying nothing. “Bernie” is churning and tuneless, despite the best efforts of backing vocalists Cristina Martinez and Hollis Queens of Blues Explosion satellite group Boss Hog. “Blue Green Olga” has a promisingly Beefheartian title, but lyrics that are more brain-damaged than art-damaged (“She is blue-green/She is blue”). “Give Me a Chance” and “Desperate” are merely pleasant, carried (barely) by the band’s skillful assemblage of retro rock, blues and soul signifiers and Spencer’s goofy, admittedly infectious charisma.

It doesn’t help that the Automator partnership, as great as it sounds on paper, never quite comes to life in practice. “Calvin,” the album’s most successful marriage of blues and hip-hop, was mixed not by the Automator but by producer Todd Ray from sessions recorded by Calvin Johnson (hence the name). When Nakamura shows up, it’s mostly to add superfluous scratches to songs like “Do You Wanna Get Heavy?” and “Blue Green Olga.” With the exception of “Talk About the Blues” and “Love Machine”—both of which recall the latter-day efforts of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad in their marriage of live instrumentation and sonic collage—his presence here is never as paradigm-shifting as it would be on the first Gorillaz album three years later. Indeed, his and Alec Empire’s contributions to closing track “Attack” are actively destructive, with the two dueling DJs adding to the racket rather than cohering meaningfully.

Acme is at its best when it gives Spencer actual songs to chew on, with substance as well as glossy surface. “High Gear,” for example, is an unadvertised Christmas song in which Spencer plays a truck driver who narrowly avoids a head-on collision with Santa Claus; his bellowed interjections of “Thas’ right, man!” are even funnier when they’re being delivered between references to eggnog and eight tiny reindeer. Better still is “Torture,” a note-perfect soul ballad in which Spencer laments the paradoxical impossibility of living either with or without another person: “Baby, I love you so much,” he croons with an audible smirk, “I wish I could be with you every minute of every hour of every day… And that’s torture.

As much as I still like these high points, though, Acme remains impossible to remove from the time of its release. Listening to it now, it’s clear that Spencer’s tongue-in-cheek approach to blooze clichés was already on its way out of favor. Critics had grumbled about cultural appropriation after the Explosion’s 1996 album Now I Got Worry)—charges to which Spencer responds in remarkably tone-deaf fashion on “Talk About the Blues,” lifting the cadences of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s album title I Do Not Play No Rock ‘n’ Roll for his exhortation “I do not play no blues/I play rock ‘n’ roll.” The fact that rock ‘n’ roll, too, was an African American invention seems to have escaped him. On “Calvin,” meanwhile, he escalates from appropriating Black vernacular to sampling it, using the voices of obscure ‘60s and ‘70s funk and soul artists Bobby Boseman, Alvin Cash and Count Yates to channel a racially-coded “authenticity” he could only imitate.

The years following Acme’s release found punk blues moving in other, less flippant directions. The White Stripes’ Jack White was just as self-consciously postmodern as Spencer, but his respect for Delta Blues tropes and traditions was deadly serious; the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach would take a more conventional route, ignoring the issue of being a white man in a Black musical tradition entirely. Neither group attracted the same level of criticism as the Blues Explosion. With the inclusion of an all-white bar band called “Blueshammer” in Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 film Ghost World, a generation of critics now had a readymade pejorative for Spencer’s brand of hipster minstrelsy.

But for all that, I wonder if the Blues Explosion didn’t get a bit of a raw deal. When “Bellbottoms” from Orange showed up in Edgar Wright’s film Baby Driver last year, it reminded me of what I used to love about the band: their absolute, windmill-tilting commitment to everything absurd, trashy and ludicrous about rock ‘n’ roll. Spencer’s occasional “blaccent” certainly hasn’t aged well since 1998; but his freewheeling, devoutly unserious aesthetic remains evergreen.

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