Originally created 10/07/04

Waits, Spencer releases share American roots



Jon Spencer and Tom Waits couldn't be more different if they tried. While the flashy Mr. Spencer is often accused of putting style before substance, Mr. Waits couldn't have more substance if he were a bran muffin.

Yet, in their own way, Mr. Waits, who sprouted from California in the 1970s, and Mr. Spencer, a New Yorker who embraced dirt-raw rock in the '90s , have tweaked their basic formulas just enough to produce first-rate CDs: Real Gone, from Mr. Waits, and Damage, from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

Besides sharing release dates this past Tuesday, both have an uncanny way of taking quintessential American music (Mr. Waits, folk, and Mr. Spencer, blues-tinged rock) and making it their own.

MR. WAITS HIT pay dirt in the mid '80s by taking the aesthetics of Beat poetry and spoken word performance and marrying them to stories of human damage of biblical proportions. He delivers them with pulverized-granite-as-muse vocals, backed up by pianos, organs and guitar. Real Gone marks another chapter in his return from a short hiatus in the 1990s. This time, he's left the keyboards behind but the trademark vocals are there; often it sounds as though he gargled with hydrochloric acid before entering the studio.

It's the haunting melancholy of Dead, with Mr. Waits backed up by simple strings and light drum, that truly shows what experience on the dark edges of life can impart. Singing wistfully of a young middle-class girl snared by a murderous con artist, Mr. Waits could easily be mistaken for a juke-joint crooner instead of a gutter-punk poet's high priest.

DAMAGE, ON THE other hand, marks a subtler shift for the Blues Explosion. Ever the postmodern rocker, Mr. Spencer never claimed to actually play the blues. Rather, he seems to feed at a stylistic trough. His bands' last effort was a sort of countrified rock, and this time around, he speaks the language of the blues ("Like a blind man, I've been lost for so long," he sings on Spoiled) but uses the energy of a preacher to bless us with a rock 'n' roll sneer.

Mr. Spencer achieves something of a double slam dunk on Fed Up and Low Down. Thirty seconds into the song, you'll be scratching your head trying to pin down the instruments being played. Well, you would be if you could keep your cheeks on the seat. "Now is the time to lose your self control/Forget about all the garbage in your brain hole." If you were wondering how far away from conventions he gets, the close second to Low Down, Hot Gossip, features guest vocals by Chuck D of Public Enemy.

Listen up

  • Tom Waits, Real Gone (Anti Records) HHHH

  • Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Damage (Sanctuary Records) HHHH

    Reach Patrick Verel at (706) 823-3332 or patrick.verel@augustachronicle.com.