Jon Spencer is an easy target. Think about it; the Blues Explosion's collection of clichés and schtick has teetered on the edge of parody from the word go, compressed into a ball of hyper-dense post-modernity. Spencer has spent ten-odd years selling an intentionally vague idea
of the blues to white guys who, if pressed, will quietly admit that they don't get, or simply don't like, the real stuff. He goes dumpster-diving for junk culture, then sells the fruits of his trawling -- your own old records -- back to you at a significant profit. And he's pulled off the same trick half a dozen times. Naturally you want to hate Plastic Fang
-- you've already purchased it several times, and damn it, you're not gonna be fooled again!
The problem, of course, is that while Spencer was taking a break from zeitgeist-pilaging and cliché-mongering, a bunch of other bands found his favorite dumpster. This wouldn't have been much of a problem in and of itself, had not the fickle fates that govern music trends decided that garage rock's time had returned. As a result, Plastic Fang bursts onto a scene already crowded with gritty, low-rent rock bands, forcing Spencer's punked-up Elvis persona into an elder statesman role it was never meant to play -- and irking uptight music fans, who feel that Spencer's tongue-in-cheek "blooze" action has no place in the new, irony-free world of garage rock. Suddenly, Spencer is an unwelcome fat-cat capitalist, eager to return to the well once more.
The thing is, anyone who seriously expected Plastic Fang to be anything other than a standard JSBX record is a fucking halfwit. That's the point, dumbass. This is what the guy does (Acme aside). He's not going to change his tune because it's suddenly trendy. While all those other bands are doing NME cover shoots and being argued about on high-minded weblogs, Spencer is blowing (comparatively) big bucks in the studio, writing songs about chicks and cars and monsters and rocking and fucking. He's working with guys like Dr. John and Bernie Worrell, for chrissake. He's finding the balance between polished and primal. He's reveling in the glorious clichés of white boy blues rock. Substance? Fuck it. Style is the way to go.
The nominally monster-themed Plastic Fang might surprise you. On one level it's business as usual -- lots of feedback and self-referential name-checking -- but it's certainly less abrasively atonal than Now I Got Worry, and also sounds fresher than the endlessly-rehashed, electronica-spiced Acme. Producer Steve Jordan has polished JSBX to a sweaty shine, returning focus to Spencer and Judah Bauer's chunky, chugging, riff-trading action and Spencer's howling, swaggering, larger-than-life performance. Jordan's subtle bass work gives the Explosion a much-needed foundation, particularly in the melody department -- these are songs you can actually sing along to, especially when you get a couple of beers in you; sample "She Said"'s insidious chorus if you think I'm lying. From the angrily seductive "Hold On" (which features the aforementioned Dr. John and Bernie Worrell) to the Jerry Lee Lewis-meets-the-Ramones stomp of "Shakin' Rock'n'Roll Tonight" and the stripped-down, defiantly Stonesy slur of "Mean Heart", Plastic Fang delivers explosive rock 'n' roll that sounds best when played at speaker-trashing volume. Sure, not everything rings true -- "Money Rock 'n' Roll"'s opening salvo sounds a bit like latter-era ZZ Top (a dangerous place to go), and "borrowed" riffs abound -- but the album is never anything more or less than it pretends to be. It offers a good time, and it delivers. As a soundtrack to mindless partying, it is first-rate.
Dismiss Plastic Fang as the superfluous output of a musical huckster if you like, but you're missing the point. Spencer never pretended he wanted to save rock 'n' roll; he just wants to sell it to you. From where I'm standing -- just downwind of the hype machine -- his approach comes across as refreshingly honest.