About the only things that’s really worth knowing about Letters to Cleo these days is that fictional municipal executive Ben Wyatt is a fan. The band, fronted by Kay Hanley, had a solid radio hit with “Here and Now,” a song that appeared on their debut release, the unfortunately-titled Aurora Gory Alice. The band and their label clearly hoped to leverage that tantalizing taste of success with the release of their sophomore album, Wholesale Meats and Fish, and it initially seemed they might be able to develop some reasonable longevity. “Awake,” the album’s lead single, charted only a few slots lower than “Here and Now,” on both the Billboard Modern Rock and the Hot 100 lists. As far as commercial success, it was diminishing returns from there, with one more proper studio album (the band’s last release, aside from a rarities collection, was culled together from earlier recordings) and a very nineties excursion as the house band for the movie 10 Things I Hate About You. They officially broke up in 2000, though the invariably reunion gigs started cropping up a few years later. And they of course played the Pawnee-Eagleton Unity Concert. Ben Wyatt saw to that.
83. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Orange
The fact that Orange has a spot on 90FM’s 1995 list truly speaks to the impact of the breakthrough release from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Released in late October of the prior year, Orange required some serious staying power to register. I remember it as one of the more talked-about releases of the time, with those who connected with it wrapped up in a near-zealous devotion to its pretzeling together of punk and blues. By the basic description, it should have been exactly the sort of record I glommed onto, too. Though I tried repeatedly, I never fully warmed to it. There was something problematic about it that I couldn’t quite name. Listening to it now, with the benefit of comparison to some of its superior descendants (including, it’s worth noting, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s follow-up, Now I Got Worry), I hear a distancing, jokey cynicism that I think explains my long-ago reticence.
Revered rock critic Robert Christgau was one of the dissenters, brutalizing the record for its apparent mockery of the classic rock bands that trafficked in blues appropriation, going so far as to call Spencer “an asshole coming and going” (Christgau’s assessment is so harsh that the B- minus grade he assigns seems like a typo). That strikes me as an overreaction, but he’s on the right track. Orange at time feels like more provocation than album, an extended dare to the listener. Like a wiser version of the naked, preening emperor of an old fairy tale, Spencer is betting no one is going to step forward to call him on his bullshit. He and his bandmates clearly have the chops to play some blistering music. What they lack is the conviction of sincerity. Compare Orange to something like The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shrines, which takes the same warped approach to retro sounds but has the hard smack of true belief, and the earlier album starts to sound like a dull joke.
The contradictory messiness of Orange is present right from the opening track and lead single, “Bellbottoms.” The track already feels halfway to spoof by virtue of the deliberate inanity of its deconstructionist lyrics, and then the Elvis-tinged hit-and-run spoken word part drops into the middle like an anvil. Later, “Cowboy” plays like a straight parody of the Rolling Stones half-assing their way through a lazy blues crooner in between hashish binges, and “Blues X Man” pushes the jokiness to the point of wearying absurdity. The album somehow manages to try too hard and signal complete disinterest from the band. And “That’s the sweat/ Of the Blues Explosion,” which is, as might be expected, lyrics from the song “Sweat.”
The really irritating part of all this intentional misstepping is that there’s a piercing, fascinating record obscured by the tomfoolery. Just listen to the raw abrasion of “Dang,” with distorted screams straight for the stone-walled pit Thurston Moore would’ve built if all those backward chords snapped something in his noggin and he went full-on Buffalo Bill. And there’s a crisp appeal to “Flavor,” with its opening riff that sounds like “Pleasant Valley Sunday” dredged through mud saturated with crude oil that shifts into a shuffling, slide-step rhythm that seems designed to make guest performer Beck feel at home. These aren’t perfect songs, but they are at least daring and different. They try to be something other than a loosely delivered gag. Then there’s the easy stroll of instrumental “Vary Rare,” which proves the Blues Explosion can craft and then ride a groove with care and expertise.
Unlike many of the other bands populating this list, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion kept at it without an official break. There may have occasionally been lengthy gaps between albums and the attentiveness of music fans and the music press has definitely dwindled. And the albums did get better as Spencer and company grew less inclined to hide behind affectation and sarcasm. I suspect Orange is still typically cited as the album that matters most in the band’s discography. I still don’t hear that when I listen to it. Instead, it’s like a bratty refusal to take things seriously for fear of being mocked for it. The kindest thing I can offer is that it does suggest a group that has the capability of making strong music when they finally get around to believing in the worthiness of doing so.
— An Introduction
— 90-88: The Falling Wallendas, Parasite, and A.M.
— 87-85: North Avenue Wake Up Call, Live!, and Life Begins at 40 Million