I haven't made a sweeping pronouncement in weeks, so I'm going to enjoy this: The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is the most important rock band working today.
That's different than saying they're the best rock band working today (though to my ear they're in the running for that as well), because "best" is a highly subjective call. You can judge importance, on the other hand, by a more objective standard: What sort of discussion, and how intense a discussion, does the band, its CDs and its performances raise?
The discussion spawned by the Blues Explosion isn't new, but it can't be dismissed as old either. It's race -- as in, what the hell right do a bunch of Yankee white boys have to associate themselves with the blues anyhow? The Blues Explosion may be nobody's traditional blues band, and the "Explosion" part of the name may have given too many grad-schooled critics an excuse to make the nonsensical claim that Spencer's deconstructing the blues, but the group's similarities with traditional blues bands are key. Its two-guitars-and-drums lineup filters a partial understanding of the blues (its get-down, visceral aspects) through a white punk noise aesthetic, and what comes out is one of a very few unmistakably progressive sounds in modern rock.
But it's also a white-boy progressive sound studded with overt black culture references. And while people seem to accept a continuity between Public Enemy and Beck, such continuity makes them nervous when applied to the blues. For instance, is "Afro," from 1993's Extra Width, an homage or a caricature? Or neither? When Spencer thrashes an identifiable blues riff and moans on 1994's Orange, "Ahm gonna write a song, ahm gonna write, ahm gonna write ...," is he getting to the root of blues expressionism, or putting on a modern minstrel show? And when he gyrates and slurs into his on-stage channeling of Presley, the multiracial lines get really tangled. Is this a joke? Or is this serious? And if I can't tell, can Spencer? And if Spencer can't tell, is this where rock art -- always buried in the knot of black and white -- finds its finest hour?
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I don't know. All I know is that on CD and in performance, Spencer never fails to deliver those esoterically defined goods that make a performer great. Rock might have lost the battle for authenticity, and it may have succeeded at celebrity all too well. But if it can still make you nervous -- and especially if it can make you nervous and make you dance at the same time -- I suspect it can still be important.
-- Brad Tyer
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion performs Sunday, December 1, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Doors open at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10. Doo Rag opens. For info, call 862-3838.
Jack Saunders -- So much for another of Houston's old reliables. After 14 years, eight releases and too many awards to count, local favorites Shake Russell and Jack Saunders have parted company. Almost feels like a marriage gone kaput, doesn't it? Saunders, for one, hasn't wasted any time pondering life without Russell. Little more than a month after October's Shake and Jack farewell show, the singer/songwriter is ringing in the release of his first solo CD, Jack Saunders, which showcases -- in a polished, pleasant-enough manner -- his knack for turning a simple, eloquent phrase and tweaking the ears with the occasional memorable melody. For live shows, Saunders has assembled a strong band, which should supply the immediacy many of the new songs lack on disc. At McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, at 9 p.m. Friday, November 29. Tickets are $8. 528-5999. (Hobart Rowland)
Smashing Pumpkins -- Smashing Pumpkins were having a banner time of it until their dirty laundry hit the fan earlier this year. Granted, the good stuff was easy to ignore, what with the dead body of the band's tour keyboardist wheeled before our eyes on MTV News for days on end, bringing to light -- under seedy circumstances -- not only his tragic drug problem, but the drug woes of then Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, who was found (alive) with him. All of sudden it didn't seem to matter that the group had thwarted the letdown many thought inevitable after the multiplatinum success of 1993's Siamese Dream, and done it with the ungainly Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. But Smashing Pumpkins aren't ones to let minor tragedies such as heroin addiction and death spoil things. The band's unabashedly self-motivated and careerist leader Billy Corgan did what he had to do to keep the Great Pumpkin rolling forward: He fired Chamberlin, hired a new drummer, granted a handful of national interviews to express his grief over the incident (so as not to seem insensitive) and the band continued on its way. If that wasn't enough, the Pumpkins are set to release yet another glut of material, The Aeroplane Flies High, a 33-track collection of the group's A and B sides from the Mellon Collie singles nestled among an assortment of freshly cut covers, all in nifty retro packaging that resembles the old carrying cases for 45 rpm vinyl. Witnesses to the band's Chamberlin-era live shows are liable to miss the presence of one of the '90s most talented rock drummers, but hey, at least Corgan has chilled on the between-song tantrums. At the Summit at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, December 3. Tickets are $26.25. Garbage opens. 629-3700. (