"It was kind of a challenge for us," Jon Spencer offers, relaxing at the Matador Records offices in lower Manhattan. "We just wanted to make a more traditional record. And, personally, I was looking f

"It was kind of a challenge for us," Jon Spencer offers, relaxing at the Matador Records offices in lower Manhattan. "We just wanted to make a more traditional record. And, personally, I was looking for someone to pat me on the back and push me to something new."

The record in question is Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's "Plastic Fang," due April 9 in the U.S. on Matador, April 8 in Europe and Southeast Asia on Mute International, and March 27 in Japan on Toy's Factory. The "someone" is musician/producer Steve Jordan, best-known for his pairing with Keith Richards in the X-Pensive Winos and his session work with artists from B.B. King to Billy Joel.

"Plastic Fang" marks the first time the Blues Explosion has worked with a producer in the traditional sense, and the union yielded remarkable results: the band delivers its finest album to date, a tightly focused, driving, and irresistibly funky rock'n'roll record that doesn't let up till the final cymbal crash has faded.

Though the Blues Explosion's sound has always been synonymous with impish sexual energy and a relentless punk/rock wallop, Jordan and engineer Don Smith have brought both enhanced sonic definition and subtlety to a stellar collection of songs. It's a marriage of all participants' greatest gifts, rendering a thrilling, dynamic listening experience.

This is not to say that longtime fans will be disappointed. With songs like the menacing "Killer Wolf," "Money Rock N' Roll," the slide guitar-drenched "Down in the Beast," and "Shakin' Rock N' Roll Tonight," "Plastic Fang" is Jon Spencer Blues Explosion at its essence, the band's defining manifesto. From the opening rave-up of "Sweet & Sour," the sound grabs the listener and won't let go.

"It was a decision first to get a producer," Spencer explains, "which we had never done before. And then we decided to work with Steve. It's not like I had any records he produced -- he's just some guy I know from seeing countless times on television. We listened to some of his stuff, and I like what he's done, but Steve's just a wonderful person, just a very lovely guy. It worked out great, and the whole thing was just so much fun."

While the two-guitar-and-drums lineup serves this tight trio well -- the lack of a bassist is virtually imperceptible -- the union with Jordan demonstrably elevates the Blues Explosion to a new peak. In addition to the encouragement Spencer sought for the band, Jordan and Smith's production chops bring an impressive diversity of sounds, often attenuating the lowdown, lo-fi growl of earlier albums and offering instead a greater definition that uncovers and showcases the outstanding interplay between Spencer, Bauer, and drummer Russell Simins.

"Before, when we'd record, we'd just have someone record us," Simins explains. "It was out of our hands in a lot of ways, except when it got to mixing." By contrast, the "Plastic Fang" sessions in various New York studios were marked by "changing drums around, changing amps around, understanding that different songs can sound different and will sound better if they sound different. To me, that felt like the way a record should be made."

"The one thing I wanted to do sonically," Jordan says, "was to make an appealing-sounding record. It can be big, it can be small, it can be rough, but you have to want to hear it again. Working with Don, I knew that I could get the guitar sounds I wanted to really enhance the sound and the size of the band. We did a lot of different mic-ing techniques and a lot of bi- and tri-amping stuff. I didn't want to do a lot of overdubs, I wanted it to all be there.

"And since there's no bass -- I love bottom, you've got to give me some bottom! -- it's got to come from somewhere, so most of the time it comes from Jon, the way we have it hooked up," Jordan continues. "It's basically how they do it, anyway. They play so well together and off of each other, it was just a complete joy. I got to play on a few things -- that was a lot of fun."

Jordan added acoustic guitar, organ, and, on one song, bass. At times, he simply played tambourine or maracas. Beyond the advantageous pairing of the Blues Explosion and Jordan, "Plastic Fang" features guest artists Dr. John and Bernie Worrell.

Days after appearing on the bill with Ike Turner at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in New York and performing much of "Plastic Fang," the band traveled to Europe for performances and promotion. During the first week of March, it plans to film a video for "She Said" with director Floria Sigismondi. Two West Coast dates follow: March 10 at Bimbo's in San Francisco and the next night at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles. The band tours Europe and the U.S. in April and May, then heads to Japan and back to Europe. After that, the act returns home for more U.S. dates.

The disc packaging features artwork created by Chip Kidd, whose graphic design work has graced book covers for such authors as Michael Crichton, Anne Rice, and John Updike. Donovan Finn, Matador Records' product manager/director of radio promotion, describes the look as 1950s comic book-esque.

"We're also doing a limited-edition CD that will be in a special packaging and emulate the vinyl packaging. [Matador will press a few thousand double-LP copies of "Plastic Fang".] It's in a plastic Mylar bag with a cardboard top," Finn explains.

"Mean Heart," one of the 12 tracks on "Plastic Fang," will be available for free download on Matador's Web site (matadorrecords.com) in early March, Finn says. In addition, six new songs will appear on B-sides in Europe and Japan; four of these will also appear on the U.S. vinyl release.

"It's a different time and place," Spencer says of the album. "It's also a different band. I think that in some ways, it's become more of a band and more democratic -- more of a collaboration."





Excerpted from the March 9, 2002, issue of Billboard. The full text of the article is available in the Billboard.com members section.

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