October 23, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

‘Acme’ and ‘Wander This World’ are steeped in delta blues

It’s hard to imagine Midwestern adolescent guitar hero Jonny Lang and New York alt-rock founding father Jon Spencer having much in common. Well, perhaps a few things: They both omit the h in John, they’re both white, they both play guitar, and they’re both photogenic. And, it turns out, they do share a musical bond of a sort: They’re both trying to keep something akin to the blues alive in the age of sampling, and neither approaches the genre in the big Muddy style that has long served as the blueprint for the blues.

Even among the current crop of wise-beyond-their-teen-years musicians, Lang stood out with his 1997 debut, Lie to Me. Freakishly fascinating, the album announced the arrival of a 16-year-old who could play hellhound-chased guitar and groan as if his problems ran far deeper than being grounded. Distressingly, he’s pumped up his mannish-boy anguish to a torturous level on his follow-up, Wander This World. Grunting and bleating about ”headin’ for the delta” and ”doin’ the same old thang again,” Lang indulges in some of the hammiest, way-over-cooked vocal contortions heard since the white-blues revival of the late ’60s. It’s perfectly fine for any singer to be influenced by Joe Cocker, but someone should have steered Lang away from Cocker’s later, phlegmier work.

Lang and his producer, former Prince cohort David Z, think big on Wander This World. They aim to broaden Lang’s style by steeping the songs in the R&B-revue side of the blues. But the arrangements are as overblown and melodramatic as Lang’s delivery. This is the blues of ’80s beer commercials, not southern pool halls. Even Lang’s guitar playing sounds more belchy than fluid. (The hackneyed power ballad ”Breakin’ Me” also hints at a scary potential new influence — Michael Bolton!) Yes, Lang can play that ax, as he demonstrates by splaying fervent solos all over a rendition of Luther Allison’s ”Cherry Red Wine.” But before he enters the studio again, the kid needs to relax a little — a few rounds of Tekken 3 between sessions might help.

In his approach to roots music, 34-year-old Jon Spencer has long been as irksomely mocking (at times condescending) as Lang has been overly earnest. Spencer and his trio, the Blues Explosion, make an often unsettling style of postmodern blues — music that both nods to, and winks at, the roots of rock & roll. Acme, the band’s fifth album, finds Spencer still indulging in his borderline-offensive backwoods-loveman hooey, hiccuping gibberish lyrics and bringing more shades to the word bay-bee! than imaginable. But he’s begun to control his voice better, slipping easily into the Jagger falsetto of the slinky lounge-blues ”Magical Colors.” On that and other songs, Spencer actually manages to sound somewhat sincere.

What also distinguishes Acme from the irritating affectations of its predecessors is its more relaxed, less forced tone. At heart, the Blues Explosion remain noisemakers who revel in herky-jerky, clunky rhythms. But on these songs, they take the time to lock into spare, funky grooves, and guitarist Judah Bauer’s leads wrap themselves around the tracks like a hungry boa. This is the Blues Explosion’s most adventurous work: A wide range of knob-twirling producers — from indie-rock iconoclast Steve Albini to sound-shaping DJs Alec Empire and Dan Nakamura (the Automator of Dr. Octagon) — sprinkle the songs with scratching, church-style soul organs, fire-alarm wails, and guest harmonies from the likes of Luscious Jackson’s Jill Cunniff. The focus never leaves Spencer, but the production gimmicks add color to his black-and-white world.

Spencer won’t be thrilled by being lumped together with a relative traditionalist like Jonny Lang: ”I don’t play no blues, I play rock & roll!” sings Spencer, chastising the media in ”Talk About the Blues.” Technically speaking, he has a point; other than the band’s name, it’s hard to call Acme vernacular music in the oldfangled sense of the phrase. But the album’s toughest moments drip with sweat, drool, and craven lust — a tradition worth maintaining, no matter what you call it. Wander This World: C- Acme: B+

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