The dark-horse success story of 1992, the Spin Doctors were an amiable jam-happy combo who became the poster boys for the clan of bands — including Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic and Phish — inspired by the hippie bonhomie and extended improvisations of the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers. The group’s good-timey sound, grounded in bar-band blues, Steve Miller pop and bouncy white funk, was out of synch with most college radio playlists, and singer Chris Barron’s stage presence — like Gumby on Maui Wowie — seemed too geeky for MTV. Nevertheless, the Spin Doctors’ rubbery grooves, and simple, jaunty songwriting on the multi-platinum Pocket Full of Kryptonite became a popular alternative for mainstream rock fans unmoved by the heavy angst and fuzztone brutality of Seattle grunge.
Recorded in front of a highly partisan crowd at New York’s Wetlands club, Up for Grabs…Live is a six-song, 45-minute taste of the band’s early stage act, complete with Barron’s daffy, no doubt bong-fueled, patter. The music gives good buzz, though. Although they don’t match the improvisational heights of the Allmans or the Dead, guitarist Eric Schenkman, lefty bassist Mark White and drummer Aaron Comess apply wiry muscle to their elemental grooves and the contagious bounce of songs like “Yo Mamas a Pajama” and “Big Fat Funky Booty” is enough to excuse the sophomoric lyrics. Homebelly Groove…Live is an updated — and less satisfying — edition of Up for Grabs, issued as a stop-gap between the band’s first two studio albums. It drops three of the original’s tracks in favor of previously unissued cuts from the same ’90 Wetlands date and adds ’92 radio broadcast versions of three Kryptonite songs.
Pocket Full of Kryptonite had been out more than eight months before it took off on the back of the single (and video) “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong.” In retrospect, it’s hard to see why it took so long. The bright choruses and lively cadences of that song and the two hits that followed, “Two Princes” and “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues,” sound tailor-made for commercial radio. In between the smashes, however, the album falls a little flat as the band mistakes clever licks for good melodic ideas (“Refrigerator Car”) and the mean-spirited tone of some of Barron’s lyrics (especially “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong”) seeps through. But, musically, the Spin Doctors go about their business with enthusiasm (that’s about all Barron’s thin voice has going for it); the no-frills, frat-party feel of the production suits their modest charms.
Compared to Kryptonite, Turn It Upside Down is almost no fun at all. The band’s notion of progress is the hammy Shakespearean pastiche “Cleopatra’s Cat”; its idea of gettin’ down is the corny funk and lightweight rhymes of “Biscuit Head.” As if to confirm their paucity of hooks, the Spin Doctors end up reprising some of their old club material, including “Big Fat Funky Booty” to no improved effect.
The flat chart performance of Turn It Upside Down was quickly followed by Schenkman’s mid-tour resignation. The Doctors recruited Anthony Krizan to fill the guitar spot, but the band’s commercial momentum continued to fizz away. Co-produced by old James Taylor cohort Danny Kortchmar, the hopefully titled You’ve Got to Believe in Something is nothing special. “She Used to Be Mine” and “Sister Sisyphus” reprise the peppy white funk of the Kryptonite hits without the drop-dead hooks; the other new originals are just pleasant, pale roots-pop. (“House” is an old live staple exhumed for the effort.) The album’s “secret” bonus track, a thudding cover of KC and the Sunshine Band’s moldy disco oldie “That’s the Way (I Like It)” with Biz Markie on vocals, should have stayed hidden — in the vault.