A piercing scream opens “Skunk,” the lead track on The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s Now I Got Worry. It’s a harrowing first impression, but coming from Spencer, it feels strangely par for the course. By 1996, all manner of odd sounds, effects, and studio eccentricities had become integral to the Blues Explosion’s DNA. So when Spencer’s scratchy howl cuts in and out over Russell Simins’ well-pocketed drums and Judah Bauer’s tasty blues riffs, it’s easy to embrace the mess rather than run from it.
Spencer has made a wonderfully ragged career 30 years and counting out of subverting popular music’s most traditional staples. His feet are planted in two decidedly different musical worlds: one in the brute animalism of punk and noise rock, the other in his appreciation of blues, funk, and early American rock ’n’ roll. The two parts of Spencer’s musical self first started to gel in Pussy Galore, but the amalgam was fine-tuned upon his joining forces with Simins and Bauer. If Pussy Galore was a garage band with a noticeable blues lean, the Blues Explosion collided punk, noise, garage, blues, and rockabilly together in such a way that it was hard to recognize the individual parts. They all became part of the band’s cool-yet-bizarre sonic continuum, and by the time of Now I Got Worry, the chaos had matured into something wild but well defined.
The timing of Now I Got Worry was perfect in retrospect. The Blues Explosion delivered arguably its tautest, most effective record at a time when the mainstream music industry was still lusting after anything and everything in the alternative, grunge, and punk vein. The band has never fit those (or any other) genre labels too snugly, but in 1996 it probably felt close enough. Now I Got Worry took full advantage of MTV and radio’s hunger for loud, edgy guitar rock. If off-kilter, decidedly underground music was what they sought, the Blues Explosion was primed to give them all that they could handle.
The ingredients on Now I Got Worry aren’t that much different from those of its predecessors, Extra Width and Orange. But there’s some added vigor to the band’s punk blues on its fifth studio go-round. Spencer, Bauer, and Simins sound completely unrestrained, like feral dogs left alone to run free and follow their every creative impulse. The record wigs out with punk fury one moment (“Identify”), reinvents a Dub Narcotic tune into a warped funk-rock jam the next (“Fuck Shit Up”), and more often than not playfully experiments with the space between blues and punk. It’s a lot to take in, but sometimes it’s more fun to hold on to the edge of your seat than to settle down into a relaxed groove.
The Blues Explosion loves to bastardize musical sacred cows, but Now I Got Worry isn’t all-consumed by the band’s subversive streak. There’s a healthy amount of reverence to be found beneath the mire, such as Spencer’s decision to rope old-guard Memphis bluesman Rufus Thomas into his skewed noise-blues vision on “Chicken Dog” (the title a reference to two of Thomas’ biggest hits, “Walking The Dog” and “Do The Funky Chicken”). The song is signature JSBX, complete with a solid groove, kitschy echo, and Spencer’s madman howl. But the willingness of a seasoned blues vet like Thomas to participate in the mayhem gives Spencer’s punk and blues an added dash of old-school credibility.
Other tracks on the record are among the most arrow-straight songs the band had written to date. “Wail,” the closest the Blues Explosion ever came to a crossover single, is a seamless fusion of punk and blues that brought the band closer to a bigger audience. On other tracks, the band’s bluesier inclinations take the lead. “Dynamite Lover” chops with Stones-like swagger, while “R.L. Got Soul” gives it up to another kindred spirit in R.L. Burnside (with whom the band recorded the excellent A Ass Pocket Full of Whiskey that same year). Elsewhere, Money Mark Nishita hops on the piano to give “Can’t Stop” the feel of a barroom blues joint.
The mid-to-late ’90s gave a lot of bands a crack at stardom, few as defiantly outside the box as The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. To that end, Now I Got Worry represents not only the Blues Explosion playing at its creative peak, but also one of the most unique entries in the alternative-rock free-for-all that gave just about every band in America a shot at the brass ring. The trio offered up a few more solid efforts with Acme and Plastic Fang before stumbling into hiatus with 2004’s Damage (recorded just as Blues Explosion). The band has since reunited in visceral, fighting shape. Still, 1996 found the band’s freak blues demonstrably operating at its apex. Spencer has always led the Blues Explosion with a certain amount of campy gusto and self-aggrandizement, often loudly proclaiming, “The Blues are number one.” Now I Got Worry pops with the kind of demented zeal that makes you believe it.