Usually when bands release career retrospectives and reissues of earlier albums, it can be something of a red flag for fans and a white flag for the artist. Two years ago, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion did both of those things, dropping a best-of collection—sorry, “career retrospective”—and deluxe editions of five of their Matador albums. Yet for a band like JSBE, this move was a godsend. Their discography is cluttered and slapdash, full of limited-run albums in varying, country-specific formats. Dirty Shirt Rock ‘n’ Roll: The First Ten Years was like a deep breath meant to give clarity to a part of their insanity.
Yet look at the second half of that title. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion probably couldn’t ever die or be contained by nostalgia, so even if they hadn’t released new material in some time, it didn’t mean they would be going comfortably into the night. Sure enough, the trio is back with its first album in eight years. They don’t really need any timeliness or public clamoring either since the group has created their own edifying myth, much like the bluesmen they borrow liberally from. Meat & Bone carves its own path and swings with abandon, furthering the band’s reputation as rock and roll artists, in every sense of the word.
Blues music is infinitely malleable, and a quick look at JSBE’s collaborations over the years attest to that fact: Beck, DJ Shadow, Steve Albini, Dr. John, Ad Rock, and R.L. Burnside, among many, many others. The band is essentially monochromatic, yet they paint in Technicolor. On Meat & Bone, it’s just the three of them—Jon Spencer, Judah Bauer, and Russell Simins, the same trio that formed in New York two decades ago. They’re able to whip up a frenzy in short order, and no gnarled note goes wasted.
And, man, do they cook up a storm: “Black Mold” and “Bag of Bones” is one of JSBE’s finest one-two punches in their whole discography, and this coming from a band that has built their entire career on punches. They’re comfortable bashing out straight-ahead rock, but much of the album is knotty and dense, even with just two guitars and drums. “Danger” is alternately rockabilly-cool and trashy-weird, with Spencer’s acidic strings connecting the two. Subtle electronics fizzle and melt on “Boot Cut” as the band plies their beefy punk-blues trade, and the song leaves your brain just as fried as the amps.
It’s nice they include some roadmaps along the way. “Get Your Pants Off”—sounds easy enough, especially given the funk strut the band digs into with its fangs, and “Strange Baby” is indeed strange, recalling the tawdry roots of blues before it was scrubbed clean. Perhaps most remarkable is Meat & Bone’s spot-on production job. It’s definitely caked in juke-joint sweat, but every detail is dynamic and punchy. Yes, there’s a meatiness and boniness to the whole affair that the band would do well to export to other artists (just thinking what Spencer would do with Thee Oh Sees’ similar-minded fervor makes me salivate).
It’s good to have the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion back after all these years, if only for the rubbernecking fascination that is their unique sound. Meat & Bone is proof positive that music needn’t be so reverent to its past. On “Black Mold,” Spencer lists off his wheelhouse: Little Walter and Ornette Coleman, Magic Sam and Randy Newman, Little Richard and Grant Green. Influence is a tool, but JSBE use it like a tenderizer instead of as a feather duster.