Steve Wilson. On music.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Jim Jones Revue - Burning Your House Down (Punk Rock Blues)

Jim Jones has been knocking around the British rock scene since the late Eighties. His previous band, Thee Hypnotics, combined blues and psychedelic influences, tending toward long-ass jams that weren’t terribly removed from, uh, stoner rock. And in 2004 he formed the Jim Jones Revue. With the band’s new album, Burning Your House Down, I’m pretty much ready to swallow their Kool-Aid.

The JJR was described by one critic, more or less aptly, as “a car crash between Little Richard and the MC5.” Okay, the imagery is a little violent and jejune. It’s also not that far off.

Instead of Thee Hypnotics’ blitzed jams,  the JJR favor short, jagged bursts of maniacal rock ‘n’ roll that pay homage to the primordial intensities of Fifties fathers like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. But Fifties homage this ain’t. Like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the JJR take full advantage of the last several decades’ worth of sonic advances and abrasion. Certainly, among their inspirations, you could include the MC5, Stooges, New York Dolls, and the Sonics. And if that’s stoner rock it’s for much shorter attention spans, as the bug-eyed speed-freak rock of Burning Your House Down attests.

The smartest thing a bandleader can do is find players whose skills exceed his or her own. And Jones is no dummy. JJR’s rhythm section, comprised of drummer Nick Jones and bassist Gavin Jay, is a pile driving marvel. Guitarist Rupert Orton is a brash and biting guitarist; he plays like a Keith Richards from hell – capable of churning out choice blues licks, but just as inclined to go the Johnny Thunders/James Williamson route to beautiful oblivion. He’s on fire throughout Burning Your House Down - from the opening “Dishonest John” to the closing notes of “Stop the People,” pausing occasionally for tasty accents of George Harrison and Steve Cropper, as he supplies on “Elemental.”

In Elliot Mortimer, Jones found an absolute ace rock ‘n’ roll piano player. Mortimer has mastered the Little Richard/Jerry Lee Lewis canon, but he’s also able to supply elegant lines that flatter Nicky Hopkins or Leon Russell. Jones knows how good he is, too. On “High Horse” when Jones exhorts ‘this is how you rock’ it’s followed by a nice shot of Mortimer’s piano; when “Shoot First,” a cooking mélange of Lennon-isms and Fats Domino, breaks down, it’s Mortimer’s piano that kicks the band back in.

Together, Orton and Mortimer play with a dramatic flair that transcends your usual blues and boogie métier. For me, it’s reminiscent of the Zal Cleminson/Ted McKenna dynamic from the Sensational Alex Harvey Band or the Hunter-Allen-Ralphs triumvirate of vintage Mott the Hoople.

If I have a small caveat about the JJR it’s that there is a generic quality to what they do, despite their sheer rocking power. A band like J.Roddy Walston and the Business, for instance, is working fairly similar territory, but with more of a personal stamp.

Which leads me to this: Jim Jones is the weak link in the band. Beyond sounding more than a wee bit like Jon Spencer, Jones also brings singers as diverse as Brian Johnson, Howlin’ Pelle, and Rod Stewart (vintage, that is) to mind. But Jones sounds like the sum of his inspirations, not someone who transcends them. When you hear an Iggy Pop or David Johansen, for instance, they blow away their influences with sheer force of individual character. And lyrically, Jones relies on a well of blues sexual clichés. It’s all very true to the genre, but a little formal sounding. He hasn’t arrived at the personal language of a Nick Cave or Tom Waits. But this caveat aside, he’s a commanding presence and a committed, convincing singer.

What separates Burning Your House Down from the early waaaaaaaaay in the red early recordings from this band is the steady hand of Jim Sclavunos. Sclavunos, drummer for Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds and Grinderman (and he’s played with everyone from Sonic Youth to the Cramps) understands that the impact of speed and noise is greatly enhanced by dynamics, and the occasional silence. Burning still features plenty of blasts of distortion, but you can listen to it at moderate volume levels, whereas the band’s self-titled debut and the catch-all compilation Here to Save Your Soul practically required ear splitting volume to hear, well, anything. Sclavunos gets the balance between capturing the band’s screaming live shows and making a good record just right.

As David Fricke points out it’s an old rock fan cliché to say that some band’s record is great, but you really have to hear them live. I suspect, however, that’s the case with the Jim Jones Revue. It’s a compliment to Burning Your House Down, however, to say that it makes you want to get off the couch and out to any bar these guys are – you know, burning down.

Reverberating: 8.4

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