A tipping point has been reached over the past few years where reforming is no longer noteworthy, it’s standard. From that favourite indie band you saw at fresher’s week, to era defining stadium acts, it seems everyone is cashing in on the reunion tour cheque.
Whatever the reasoning behind the milking of the cash cow, reunions are often confined to the live arena; everyone can get their hit and head home happy. It’s interesting then that over the coming weeks we can expect to hear the first Ben Folds album in 13 years, the first Beth Orton in six years and then, allegedly, a new record from the Happy Mondays. Whilst this isn’t the most directly comparable list of acts, it’s fair to say that in all instances concerns would be justified: the fact is that new material following a hiatus instils a justified fear. And so the announcement of the first The Blues Explosion (the definite article is back) record in eight years was understandably met with a raised eyebrow.
To his credit, Jon Spencer made efforts to tackle any potential concerns head on, describing the record as ‘almost like another first album’, and whilst this is likely to allude to starting again on firm foundations rather than attempting a facsimile of past Orange-tinted glories, Meat and Bone does represent a journey into the band’s past rather than a play for the future. Spencer is back behind the producer’s desk, genre splicing guest appearances are off the table, and the raw and unchained sound is very much to the fore.
The benefits of this approach are clear from the off; ‘Black Mold’ starts the record like a punch to the face as thunderous riffs and pounded drums are met with Spencer’s zealous snarl. It’s a call to action, a challenge to any potential pretenders and two fingers to their more mainstream counterparts riding high in the charts. Unfortunately, cracks appear quickly once this initial excitement wears off; while the old hallmarks are there, it becomes apparent that the rougher, more experimental edges that made The Blues Explosion so compelling have had some sanding. Only after six tracks is there a sense of variation from a recipe that, while still unconventional in the broader sense, ends up coming across as slightly tired, with tunes padded out rather than blazing their own path. Real variation only comes as late in the day as ‘Unclear’, a slowed-down blues with Spencer wailing a stream of consciousness. It’s telling that even album closer ‘Zimgar’ peters out rather than finishing with a bang, as a slow jam dissolves into feedback.
That’s not to say there isn’t a lot on offer that will please Blues Explosion fans – Spencer howls like a soothsayer, heavy-duty riffs are rolled out and traditional structures are ignored in favour of a more immersive experience – but against such a strong back catalogue, Meat and Bone looks set to go down as an addendum rather than a milestone.
The one caveat to all this is that a number of the tunes on offer here may well make sense live; the Blues Explosion are by all accounts still a force of nature on stage. Whilst Spencer temporarily questions the long term viability of his commitment on ‘Bottle Baby’ “Standing up here at the podium holding this fabulous statuette / I feel like a God but I still got a problem paying the rent”, he quickly revises his position, selling us blues ‘straight from the heart’, something often better sold in person, and something Meat and Bone can lay legitimate claim to being.
6James Atherton's Score