When these two indie-vators were the new kids on the block, mall-ternative rock had a very different face. In the context of the straight-faced, Marshall-stacked deck that the prevailing grunge game dealt them, Beck was immediately regarded as a one-hit, alterna-novelty act with "Loser" and Spencer was merely titillating the music crit-world and the hiperati with what is still the JSBE's landmark, the 1994 album, Orange. Beck, the picture of marginalized, left-coast loose, and Spencer, creating the template for downtown NYC trustafarian cool, couldn't have been artistically further from the mainstream. A handful of years later, these fellas may not be swimming much closer to the river's deep, but the channel has broadened to include the irony, genre deconstruction and genuine love of American roots music that both Spencer (and Explosion, of course) and Beck (whose avowed musical gods are Leadbelly and Mississippi John Hurt) have helped bring to the rock music fore. Despite the current drivel and lack of inspiration being touted as alternative, both Spencer and Beck have managed to continue creating true expression-chasing musical art.
So, it's with an even greater anticipation that new records by JSBE and Beck enter the marketplace this month, JSBE with Acme and Beck with Mutations -- both of which, through different methods and madness, are successful. Most important, neither Acme nor Mutations alienates a pop audience with experimentation, but rather sucks 'em in with tested innovation and pure tunefulness, respectively.
After the groundbreaking cut-and-paste folk-funk of Odelay, Beck hit the road hard, assembling a live band, a grand, ever-tighter, rock-with-turntables unit that pulled off with surprising freshness Odelay's wild musical imagination. It is this band that inhabits the tunes on Mutations -- which isn't an album in the Sgt. Pepper sense but in the photographic snapshots sense. Yeah, there's the odd sample, quick edit and ironic posture here, but the soul, brain and body of Mutations is straight-up tuneage. The tone and, often, lyrics of the songs here are sincere, with the only po-mo concession to be found in the mundane style and reference-checking fun to be had (Beatles, Dead, lounge moves, etc.). If this revelation of an earnest Beck leaves you reeling, think of his road-weary musical rumination tune, "Deadweight," from the soundtrack to A Life Less Ordinary and you're not too far off the interstate here. Beck, in the accompanying press release, passes Mutations off as a 'tweener record, but this glimpse of the songwriter inside the sound and beat collage overload is the cat's laid-back meow (or purr, I suppose).
Spencer and company, on the other hand, take the road Beck's traveled in their own souped-up Continental. Acme is rock 'n' roll broken down into its spare elements and rebuilt with the enthusiasm of someone who doesn't want to be told how to gap the piston rings, but rather likes to just let the sparks fly.
Like Elvis doing hip hop, all the trademark self-referencing, punk(ass) Spencer lyrical, snotty chutzpah is here -- on "Talk About The Blues," Spencer busts all self-aggrandizing on topics of fashion, Rolling Stone magazine and the Explosion playing rock 'n' roll, not the blues. But the music, elemental, reconstructed and funky as hell, trades in the guitar-forward rock moves of the band's previous album, Now I Got Worry, for rhythm and blues of the Rufus Thomas school. And thanks to a cast of production, remix and recording brains such as Dub Narcotic's Calvin Johnson, "recordist" Steve Albini, executive producer-R&B shouter Andre Williams, plus a cadre of guests throwing down musically, the attack sounds like a democracy of ideas with Spencer, guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins the prime movers, party hosts and conduits. This is Spencer's unintentional, street-level answer to Odelay. The album closes with Spencer shouting, "Blues Explosion, attack!" -- "Attack" features no less than guest spots from Atari Teenage Riot's Alec Empire and rapper the Automator! -- over an onslaught of beats as get-out-of-your-seat compulsive as the entire Grambling Marching Band drum section, and guitars chopping away at what resistance still futilely lingers in your should-be-shaking ass. So, in its distillation of all of the influences -- from hip hop to funk to soul to, yes, blues -- that went into creating what we know as Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Acme is, in a way, a dance record in the juke joint sense and a true alternative record in its method.
Both of these new moves for established dancers deserve to be heard -- hold the hype.