Do you think Jon Spencer observes Jackie White or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and thinks to himself, “Man, why didn’t I write those song things?” Or does he smile with fatherly pride upon all the “good haircuts ‘n’ guitars” combos around town these days? We do know that Page Hamilton reactivated Helmet after noticing Korn and Limp Bizkit’s debt—too bad rap-metal’s stock has fallen.
In any case, both Spencer’s Blues Explosion and Helmet are now heritage acts, trading on the influence each had on gutbucket neo-blooz/garage and down-tuned metal. So what to do when the heyday of East Village rawk is past, and the kewl kids live in Williamsburg and dote on Joy Division/Cure–inspired whippersnappers? I’d say “modernize,” but only Helmet choose to alter their m.o.
Helmet’s Size Matters (title’s a little too Clinton-era, no?) does, however, feature actual songs, instead of the band’s archetypal assemblage of monolithic riffs. Hamilton’s vocals are occasionally plotted now with pronounced melodies, which is nice. But his strikingly affectless, prep-school delivery is abandoned in favor of a gritty, generic bark. Furthermore, he seems unhappy with someone—”See You Dead,” the band’s version of QOTSA’s “No One Knows,” seems to address his ex-girlfriend, a hot-handed actress who’s been passed around by notable alt-rockers like a joint. Current metal’s overwhelming sense of grievance is shot through Size Matters, but forgive me for thinking Hamilton should know better.
On the other hand, the Blues Explosion (their name newly shorn of the JS) ain’t changed a thing. Judah Bauer loves him some Keith Richards and Steve Cropper, Russell Simins beats his snare like it talked shit about his mom, and Spencer, you’ll be surprised to learn, yowls as he always has done. But Damage seems yoked to the early ’90s—the slinky “Hot Gossip” features anti-war rhymes from Chuck D, and “Spoiled” features Tricky’s muse Martina Topley-Bird. Thing is, I bet Lil Jon knows who JSBX are—wouldn’t such a cameo be cooler than one from an Air America personality? Even when these guys seek beats, they don’t go to Kanye West, but to David Holmes. They’re not out to impress any whippersnappers—but maybe they should.
At a late-September show at Rothko, Spencer did something striking when he thanked the audience for attending. It wasn’t the cod-Elvis “thangyuhvurrymush” histrionics of yore, but a heartfelt, almost timid salute to aging hipsters who hadn’t abandoned them for, say, Interpol. It was sweet. But Helmet, at least, aren’t going gentle into their good night.