UPDATE (07/06/2021): Thanks to Todd in the Shadows for citing this review in his latest episode of Trainwreckords.
We may remember the 90s as a turbulent period in music, full of angsty grunge and alternative bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Alice in Chains, introspective singer-songwriters like Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow, Jewel and Sarah McLachlan, gangsta rappers like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Biggie and 2Pac and superstars going through ironic and/or cynical stages like U2 and R.E.M.
But not everything was doom-and-gloom. Divas like Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Madonna and Shania Twain sold boatloads of records and dominated the pop and album charts. The 90s also brought us the extremely non-ironic and safe-for-mass-consumption Hootie and the Blowfish, who became a cultural phenomenon when they released Cracked Rear View, one of the best-selling debut albums of all time. The decade also saw 80s stars like Bryan Adams, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi and Sting reach even greater heights. Even the hip hop world found room for decidedly non-gangsta acts like The Fugees, PM Dawn, Will Smith, Arrested Development and OutKast. And of course, by the end of the decade, the biggest-selling artists were bubblegum acts and boybands like NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears.
Then there were the Spin Doctors.
Alongside other jam bands like Phish, Blues Traveler, Dave Matthews Band, and Widespread Panic, the Spin Doctors became popular in the 90s. Aided by the demise of the biggest and most popular jam band of them all, the Grateful Dead, as well as the rise of multi-day music festivals like HORDE and Lollapalooza, these bands started amassing extremely devoted fan bases.
The Spin Doctors have a particularly interesting history. Founded in New York City in the 80s as “The Trucking Company,” the band once featured Blues Traveler frontman John Popper on harmonica. Popper would leave the band to focus on Blues Traveler, and his now-former bandmates, vocalist Chris Barron and guitarist Eric Shenkman, recruited bassist Mark White and drummer Aaron Comess into the group now known as the Spin Doctors.
The band made its reputation as a live act and developed a loyal cult following — indeed, its first recorded release was a 1991 live EP that included future hit “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong.” The band’s proper studio debut album, Pocket Full of Kryptonite, followed later that year, and sold a respectable 60,000 copies despite very little promotion and airplay (labelmates Pearl Jam also released its debut album, Ten, at around the same time and, like the Spin Doctors, saw its album flounder for the better part of a year before it got noticed).
That changed towards the end of 1992, when a few radio stations started pushing Pocket Full of Kryptonite. The infectious grooves, pulsating funk, blusey riffs, virtuosic guitar solos and fanciful lyrics caught on and the band was suddenly famous. The album was fun and catchy and would prove to be very, very popular. Powered by two monster hit singles, “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” and “Two Princes,” Pocket Full of Kryptonite went on to sell over 5 million copies in the U.S. and was the 95th best-selling pop album of the 90s, according to Billboard.
While a popular cult band that made it big with mainstream fans would seem to be poised to succeed into the next decade and beyond (it worked for R.E.M., after all), that turned out not the case with the Spin Doctors. Perhaps Rolling Stone, which put the band on the cover of its January 7, 1993 issue, set it up for failure with this line from an otherwise glowing profile: “In the age of grunge, one band scores with a joyful noise.”
In retrospect, perhaps being the antithesis of grunge — a genre that always had critical acclaim (at least it did after Nirvana broke through) — was only going to make the Spin Doctors look lightweight and unserious.
Rolling Stone went even further in its review of the band’s sophomore album, 1994’s Turn It Upside Down. “[Their] popularity is based on universal rock & roll virtues. The Doctors aren’t trying to blaze new trails. They know we’ve been down this way with the Stones, Curtis Mayfield, and a few of their other touchstones. But the proof—plenty of it—is in the party.” Entertainment Weekly concurred: “Turn It Upside Down doesn’t upend any musical conventions, and that state of affairs will probably suit the band’s party-happy fans just fine… Danger? Radical experimentation? Not here. Spin Doctors are safe as milk, and only slightly funkier.”
Were these critics being genuine? Or were they trying to damn the band with faint praise? After all, what were they really saying? That the band knew how to play it safe, didn’t believe in taking risks and were just looking to be a good-time, popular mainstream pop band? In other words, a jam band that counted Phish and Blues Traveler as its contemporaries had become a safe, mainstream pop band designed for mass consumption à la Hootie and the Blowfish.
And like Hootie, the Doctors made the same mistakes when it came to recording Turn It Upside Down (Todd in the Shadows goes into detail on Hootie’s disastrous second album, Fairweather Johnson). For instance, both bands rushed out their sophomore efforts while their debut albums were still on the charts. For the Spin Doctors, there was actually a gap of three years between their first two studio albums, which is usually a good amount of time to wait between releases. However, when you consider that most fans didn’t become aware of the band until late 1992/early 1993, 1994 seemed too soon for another studio album. Additionally, the record label had already released a “second” live album in 1992 (it was actually a combination of new live performances and a re-release their debut live EP); rushing out another record risked overexposure and seemed like a cash grab.
Another thing to consider is that the Spin Doctors, like Hootie, had years to write and fine-tune their songs for its debut. They toured relentlessly to promote said debut, got big, and then toured even more in order to cope with the sudden demands of stardom. Now they had very little time to come up with another album full of original songs — plus they had their record label and millions of fans watching and putting pressure on them to meet, if not surpass, the critical and commercial performance of Kryptonite.
And that’s assuming the band even wanted to do that. Guitarist Shenkman claimed that the band deliberately tried to avoid writing another blockbuster hit like “Two Princes.” In that vein, the Spin Doctors would hardly be the first artists to follow up a highly successful album with a less obviously commercial one in a bid for artistic credibility.
While it was understandable that the band wouldn’t want to just do Pocket Full of Kryptonite II, hit singles had been a major part of their appeal as a fun party band. With Turn It Upside Down, however, they flipped the script (maybe that’s where the title came from) and created a slog of a record full of less catchy, hookless, even boring songs. The only way you would play this album at a party would be if you wanted to tell everyone that it was time to go home. In retrospect, perhaps the most stunning thing about that aforementioned Rolling Stone review is how positive it was (it got four-out-of-five stars). The Louisville Music News hits a little closer to the mark, calling the album “less potent kryptonite” while warning: “[t]he path they are taking is not fresh by any means, but it will serve them well … for now. Another album or two of this will get old.”
Speaking of old, the band dips into its archives for the opening track, “Big Fat Funky Booty.” A longtime concert staple, the band decided to formally record it for Turn it Upside Down. That’s always a red flag — after all, if it were a good song, it would have made the debut album. It sounds a bit like “What Time Is It?” and contains cornball, cringey lyrics such as: “She’s around the house and she love me so real/ She pickin’ up a little bit of my rising, rising dough” and “It’s wonderful, could I get a little more/ ‘Cause it’s about as wide as my garage door.” You can see why they decided not to record it until they seemingly got desperate for material. The awkward humor and corny lyrics probably work in a more intimate setting — like when the band was performing small clubs or theaters with only their rabid, in-on-the-joke fans in attendance. It’s probably why “Yo Mama’s a Pajama” was always one of their popular live tunes but they never thought to formally record it for one of their albums.
In fact, several album tracks are callbacks to the band’s roots in New York City. In “Hungry Hamed’s” they wax poetic about a deli in Brooklyn where “You can have a little cry, baby, you can even beg/ Only reason I go back is that you can’t screw up an egg.” They reminisce about stoop-sitting with their friends “Jono, Jay, and Crazy Steve” in “Laraby’s Gang.” It seems odd that a band would look backwards this much this early on in its career, but maybe the Spin Doctors wanted to emphasize its roots to prove it wasn’t just some lightweight pop band?
One of the few catchy songs on the album is “You Let Your Heart Go Too Fast,” which the band released as the second single. It sounds like a combination of “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” and “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues,” only it’s far inferior to both of those songs. One bright spot is Shenkman’s excellent slide guitar. I never understood why he didn’t get more attention as a fantastic guitar player — especially when compared to his peers in 90s pop music.
Additionally, both White and Comess sound great throughout this record. White, in particular, really demonstrates his funk bona fides on songs like “Biscuit Head,” “Big Fat Funky Booty,” third single “Mary Jane.” If Flea was the biggest funk bassist of the 90s, White is, at least, somewhere in the Top Ten. Meanwhile, Comess anchors all of the songs admirably with his steady drumming, while playing that snare crack as well as anyone, other than Stewart Copeland.
For me, the weak link is Chris Barron — or more accurately, his lyrics. Take lead single “Cleopatra’s Cat.” On the one hand, it’s a perfectly cromulent song. But it’s also an unconventional, even baffling choice as a lead single (“You Let Your Heart Go Too Fast” or “Mary Jane” would have been safer choices). The bluesy funk number features Barron waxing poetic about ancient Roman history while overdoing it with his scat-style singing (imagine the short vocal interlude he does on “Two Princes” between the first and second verses – only for an entire song and with a generic coffee shop beat in the background).
On several other songs he sounds a stoned wannabe-philosopher. Barron always gave off that vibe, so I guess it’s not a surprise. In “Someday All This Will Be Road,” a gentrification song that’s either eerily prescient or the case of a broken clock being right twice a day, he sings: “‘Domesticated primates,’ the Leary Convict sez/ Sewn up together in paper foil like a pack of Pez, of course/ School was a fine bunch of rehashed lines, there was/ Nothing really said, I could have stayed home in bed and watched/ Reruns of Desi Arnaz.” If they re-recorded this for their 2001 reunion, they could have changed the last line to “I could have stayed home in bed and watched/ Kelso hang out with Fez.” In “Bags of Dirt,” a song, presumably, about the band’s never-ending touring, he gives us this: “These sketches of an infinite architecture are ink and unconfirmed conjecture/ A dream glimpse of the puppeteer’s knuckle a fragment of a fraction of a gesture/ And when the ghost whispers, I’ll set down all I hear/ A garbled, shorthand outline by a marionette in fear.”
All this screams of a band wanting to be taken seriously. But it’s jarring to hear these philosophical songs juxtaposed with less-serious, fun tracks, like the aforementioned booty song or “Biscuit Head,” which has lines like: “Biscuit Head, why you have a biscuit head/ Biscuit Head, a double-decker biscuit head.” Maybe it was a case of the band wanting to have its cake and eat it too — keeping the party going while also taking a stab at credibility.
In the end, it accomplished neither. After debuting at a respectable #28 on the Billboard 200, Turn It Upside Down promptly slid down the charts. Predictably, the album lacked a major hit single, as “Cleopatra’s Cat” peaked at #84 on the Billboard 100, while “You Let Your Heart Go Too Fast” just missed out on the Top 40, making it to #42. By contrast, “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” made it to #17, while “Two Princes” cracked the Top Ten. The album ended up going platinum, but that was a far cry from Pocket Full of Kryptonite, which sold 5x that.
During the ensuing tour for Turn It Upside Down, tensions within the band boiled over, as Shenkman quit the band, walking out following a performance in Berkeley, CA. White quit in 1999, and after Barron was diagnosed with vocal chord paralysis later that year, it seemed the Doctors were out — permanently. However, he soon recovered and the band reunited a couple of years later. They’ve been active since, often touring with other 90s acts. Recently, they did some Zoom performances to commemorate the 29th anniversary of Pocket Full of Kryptonite and they still sound pretty good.
Somehow, I doubt they’ll do the same thing in 2023 for Turn It Upside Down. Then again, if we’re all still relying on Zoom by then, we’ll have much bigger problems…