Spencer has proven that he can sing the hits—but these ain’t it.
Long before the retro-inspired garage-rock revival of the early ‘00s, Jon Spencer was among those keeping scuzz alive, first in the short-lived but influential Pussy Galore, then in the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, which enjoyed critical and commercial success in the ‘90s. With Judah Bauer on guitar and Russell Simins on drums, the Blues Explosion brought a primal, sensual thrust to rock. For some listeners, Spencer’s shtick was mere posture (part punk, part Elvis); for others, it was a genuine tribute to—and resurrection of—the founding elements of rock performance at its most unleashed. After releasing work under the moniker Heavy Trash, Spencer has returned to his own name on Spencer Sings the Hits, sans Blues Explosion and backed up instead by bassist Sam Coomes (Quasi and Heatmiser) and drummer M. Sord.
It will come as no surprise to fans of Spencer’s work that the album has attitude to spare. And a few beers in, played loud at a party, it will serve its purpose. It is easy enough to imagine that the material will fit into Spencer’s live set, interspersed with older material. But as a purely listening experience, Spencer Sings the hits is a disappointment. The riffs are predictable and add little to his catalog, and the lyrics—not necessarily his strong suit to begin with, though at his best he has a wicked irreverence—are one stock phrase after another. There is plenty of pomp, but little circumstance.
That wasn’t always the case. At his peak with Blues Explosion, and even on his more rockabilly project Heavy Trash, Spencer could generate a real sense of menace. If such explosive exclamations as “uh,” “yeah” and “baby” led to accusations of posturing, Spencer at his strongest could deliver them better than anyone, and bring a righteousness to even this most basic of rock vocabularies.
Unfortunately, these so-called hits seem to write themselves, and not out of freewheeling and spontaneous inspiration. A song like “Ghost,” for example, the album’s first spark of life five songs in, takes a pretty groovy rhythmic basis and drowns it in utterly predictable lyrics. And by the time Spencer sings, “Ironic distance reinforces convention” on the next track, it’s hard not to roll your eyes. Preaching about ironic distance does not work on an album that sounds like the very definition of it.
“Hornet,” driven by a clever guitar line that mimics the song’s subject and some of Spencer’s most convincing moments on the album, stands out as a highlight. It’s true, some of the songs have a Crampsy vibe that are not without their fleeting charm, but without any of that band’s leer and sneer. Final track “Cape” comes closest to this flavor, and is much more fun than most of what precedes it, with its vampiric shuffle and signature Spencer bravado. In the past, Spencer has proven that he can sing the hits—but these ain’t it.