Short Cuts 

Two related releases present the current state of avant-garde blues-rock.

Plastic Fang

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

(Matador Records)

Blues, punk, hip hop what's the difference? All three genres have been around long enough for their rules to be codified if not ossified, though discerning critics have pointed out that the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's particular brand of postmodern genre-mixing often blurred the lines between parody, irony, and racial caricaturing in unsettling, "irresponsible" fashion. Had the JSBX been a bigger mini-major success story, questions about the rationale behind their contemptuous hipster posturing might have been broached with greater seriousness. Yet radio has ignored Spencer's barks at the moon, and the JSBX fan base probably hasn't bothered to really investigate when and how the aesthetic strategies of blues, post-punk, and minstrelsy have mixed and mingled in the band's music. Luckily for them, it looks like they and you and me will no longer feel compelled to work out the implications of the band's avant-blues phase. Plastic Fang, coming nearly four years after 1998's Acme, is the most straightforward record of the band's career.

Freed from the silly hip-hop nods and pure-noise experimentation that have littered and bogged down previous albums for over a decade, the dozen songs on Plastic Fang lose none of their snarl and speed thanks to Don Smith's production and the unlikely rhythm section of guitarist Judah Bauer and hulking drummer Russell Simins. Gone also is Spencer's faux-Mick Jagger impression (and all of the cultural baggage that implies) in favor of jokes about Bazooka gum, Black Flag, and the tribulations of life as a werewolf.

Here they play "Money Rock 'n' Roll" shorn of historical resonance, and they soar into power-trio heaven from the atonal opening chord of "Sweet 'n' Sour" to the organ riot that closes the record. Whether this new edition will strike it rich is moot, which is now sort of sad. As is the fact that principled ideologues and twentysomethings with no sense of history or charity will probably ignore this unlikely testimonial. Addison Engelking

Grade: A-

Keep It Coming

20 Miles

(Fat Possum)

I never was a 20 Miles fan. The band, a side project of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion guitarist Judah Bauer, may have had good intentions, but both their debut, Ragged Backyard Classics, and its abortive follow-up, a North Mississippi blues project recorded with R.L. Boyce, Othar Turner, and Spam (T-Model Ford's drummer), fell far short of success. Bauer seemed unwilling to shape his own vision, and it showed: 20 Miles came off as an amorphous stab at self-expression destined to remain on the back burner.

But you can forget all that now. Keep It Coming supersedes even the Blues Explosion's new one (Plastic Fang) as the blues-rock album of 2002. From the stripped-down approach of "Well, Well, Well" to the album's closer, "I Believe," it's evident that Bauer has achieved the impossible: He's concocted the perfect combination of hill-country blues and big-city rock. "Tear down the mountains," he commands on "Well, Well, Well" "Help me take down all the idols/I don't need them/I don't believe them," Bauer growls, and it's obvious that he's finally comfortable in his own skin.

The country twang of "Only One," the ringing guitar rock on "All My Brothers, Sisters Too!," and the jangling affirmations of "Feel Right" make you wanna turn it up loud and boogie till you drop. Don't miss "Rhythm Bound," an addictive hand-clapping percussive romp that name-checks H.C. Speir, the Jackson, Mississippi, talent scout who discovered Charley Patton, Skip James, and a handful of other bluesmen in the first half of the 20th century. "Heal myself/Help myself/Soothe myself every day," Bauer sings over his chunky guitar chords with infectious enthusiasm, "I am rhythm bound." Elsewhere ("Fix Fences," "Phaedo"), he plays with a tremolo style that rivals the late great Pops Staples.

Keep It Coming is so damn good that I wonder what it took for Bauer to finally break through. I can almost picture him selling his soul to the devil at some desolate Brooklyn crossroads, like an urban Robert Johnson. Stranger things have happened. Andria Lisle

Grade: A

Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues

Charley Patton

(Revenant Records)

Charley Patton is the root of Mississippi Delta blues. He taught Son House (who taught Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters). He taught Howlin' Wolf and Pops Staples. And he has inspired blues players and fans for generations.

Patton's life is as mysterious as his music is powerful. He was born in 1887 and died in 1933. He was a songster in his day, traveling widely and playing in a range of styles. The blues was then nascent, the elements from which it would be created swirling about the Delta like a storm about to form. Patton played them all from the Scots-Irish reels and jigs to the Hawaiian-style slide guitar. Patton himself was the tornado that would be called the blues.

I've owned several Patton collections, but none has been as listenable, as sonically accessible, as these. For the first time, you can hear Patton without the hissing sound of previous transfers but with the bass-y bottom punch of a 78. Untrained ears will have little trouble adjusting to the sound.

Five of the CDs on this massive collection feature Patton's music, including false starts, outtakes, and sessions on which Patton was a sideman. The sixth disc, Charley's Orbit, demonstrates the range of his influence, with tracks by Bukka White, Son House, Ma Rainey, Furry Lewis, Howlin' Wolf, and several others. It's a great compilation disc itself; that each track can be traced to Patton makes it all the more powerful. Disc seven features four interviews with people who knew Patton. The Wolf snippet is incredible, and the H.C. Speir interview is a fascinating oral history.

As important as this collection is musically, it's also an astounding feat of packaging. I had as much fun opening this box set as I've had unwrapping any gift since I was a child. The package is a recreation of an old 10-inch 78 RPM "album" (several 78s packaged together, like oldies at the thrift stores). Within, there are seven CDs, a paperback book on Patton by the late John Fahey (founder of the reissue label behind this treat), a reproduction of liner notes to a previous Patton reissue, 128 pages of intense liner notes from national authorities (including the University of Memphis' Dr. David Evans), several reproductions of period advertisements, and more. It's expensive (about $175), but for the blues fan who has everything or the designer who's seen it all, it's well worth the cost. Robert Gordon

Grade: A+

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