The new Plastic Fang (Matador) marks the second time in the past six years that the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion have retreated from experiments with hip-hop and electronica to reclaim their old straight-up choogle. After Orange's collages and a remix EP, they went back to the garage for 1996's Now I Got Worry; the new album is the first since 1998's Acme, where the trio collaborated with folks like Dan the Automator and Alec Empire. A lot's changed in the past four years--Jack White has swiped Spencer's blues-punk crown, stripping the form down even more severely and pulling it into the Billboard top 100. In a way Plastic Fang is a white flag--the JSBX seem to have quit trying to be cutting edge. But their return to the comfort zone is hardly toothless. The album was produced by Steve Jordan, a big-timer who's worked with Keith Richards, and the trio's affinity for the Stones is more obvious than ever. "Sweet n Sour" lifts a riff fragment from "Tumbling Dice," and an interlude in "The Midnight Creep" recalls the crisscrossing guitars that open "Street Fighting Man," but the main similarities lie in the general swagger of the songs. The group has never executed unbridled classic rock 'n' roll raunch with so much precision or oomph; every riff wallops like a slab of beef to the side of the head. One caveat, though: freed from the high-concept shtick, Spencer's songs definitively come off as the patchwork homages they've always been--which highlights how little he's always had to say. James Brown can convey a world of soul in a single wordless grunt, and Jack White can put together a touching couplet, but Spencer's discourse rarely transcends the level of "Go ahead baby / I'm going to stick my head in gravy" (from "The Midnight Creep"). Thursday, May 9, 10 PM, Metro, 3730 N. Clark; 773-549-0203.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joe Dilworth.