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Jon Spencer - Spencer Sings the Hits! Music Album Reviews

For his first album under his own name, the ever-wild guitar renegade lampoons the posers and newbies while again rewiring rock’n’roll until the circuits almost short.

If there’s been a constant in Jon Spencer’s 30-year journey from garage-punk attitude monster to Baby Driver car-chase choreographer, it’s been his fascination with trash. For Spencer, disposability is the ultimate marker of authenticity. He’s built his musical empire from pop-culture detritus too strange, lascivious, and threatening to be absorbed into the mainstream. It’s there in the scrap-metal beats of Pussy Galore, in the B-movie sound design of the Blues Explosion, in the porno-mag packaging of Boss Hog, and in the band he calls Heavy Trash. At this point in his career, that zeal has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Despite the Blues Explosion’s brief flirtation with Beastie-abetted arena tours and movie-star-laden videos in the 1990s, Spencer has effectively been expunged from the modern indie rock narrative, just as his hell-raising heroes Hasil Adkins, Andre Williams, and R.L. Burnside have been excluded from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

If contemporary culture has consigned Spencer to the rubbish bin, the least he can do is make a dance move out of it. His first-ever album under his own name, Spencer Sings the Hits!, opens with a directive to “Do the Trash Can,” a floor-quaking stomp that’s part Fred Schneider, part Frankenstein. The track hinges on the maniacal spiel and sweaty stench of the typical Blues Explosion grind. But, in lieu of Judah Bauer’s slinky swagger, Quasi keyboardist Sam Coomes delivers a synth-buzzed fuzz that doubles as phantom bass. And in sharp contrast to Russell Simins’ funky struts, drummer M. Sord’s clamorous, caveman beats burrow a subterranean path back to the garbage-can clang of Pussy Galore.

Spencer spent last winter rummaging through a junkyard near his recording locale in Benton Harbor, Mich., searching for pieces of scrap to accompany traditional drums. He found his holy grail in the form of a gas tank from an old Chevy. For Spencer, the metallic sound is no simple throwback device or gimmick; it’s his way of asserting an elbow-greased work ethic in a culture that’s become reliant on push-button convenience. On Spencer Sings the Hits!, Spencer isn’t so much playing rock’n’roll as scientifically reanimating it, welding and wiring the debris together into a mechanistic monstrosity that’s perpetually on the verge of short-circuiting.

Spencer Sings the Hits! is, of course, an ironic sales pitch. While riding the dollar-store Stones riff of “I Got the Hits,” he spends more time cheekily boasting of his chart-topping potential (“So many emotions! So much passion! Crazy melodies! So many hits!”) than actually demonstrating it. In Spencer’s case, the “hits” are more of the clenched-fist variety, as he devotes a good deal of the record to taking shots at posers who would dare take the easy route to rock infamy. On “Fake,” he hammers at “counterfeit punk” with an industrial-blues mallet, while the zombie a-go-go of “Beetle Boots” digs its pointy heels into upstart groups that put fashion before passion: “You think it’s easy being in a band/Wrong priorities, misguided intentions/Ironic distance just reinforces convention!” The song would have felt more relevant 15 years ago in the post-Strokes/Stripes era of garage-rock opportunists; it’s not like the market is currently overrun with armchair Back from the Grave fetishists. Still, Spencer oozes enough authoritative contempt to make “imitation leather and plastic zippers” seem like crimes worthy of a bench trial.

Even as pop culture continues to diverge sharply from Spencer’s definition of cool, he remains too spirited and unhinged as a performer to harden into cranky-old-man bitterness. He’s more like the neighborhood freak at the end of the street who’s less interested in scaring the kids off his lawn by wielding a shotgun than in weirding them out with all bizarre junk he’s hoarding on the porch. On “Wilderness,” he hops aboard a chugging “No Fun” groove but flips Iggy’s ennui into a celebration of holding onto whatever makes you feel good in an ever-changing world: “Stick your head in a cave/Stick your head in a hole/Rockabilly, disco, punk, soul/Trousers with flares/The noise, the noise, the noise!” Fashion is fleeting, but trash is forever.

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