It’s often hard to remember why you bought albums. Singles are easier to explain – at least you have a specific track to analyse when trying to determine what appealed to you. With albums, you know you like the artist, but you may not be sure which of the tracks, if any, first caught your attention.
As regards Pocket Full of Kryptonite by The Spin Doctors, however, I know the track that prompted the purchase, where I was when I first heard it, and how I skipped the intermediate stage of buying the single to dive straight in for the album.
I was actually working in Dudley, Central England, and it was a radio play of Two Princes that marched me rather flippantly into a record shop on the way home, and then out again, with Pocket Full of Kryptonite – The Spin Doctors’ debut album – on audio cassette.
I’d typically buy singles based on the songs, and albums based on the style of the music. And in this album’s time of the early 1990s (it was released in 1991), the recording epitomised the modern face of commercial rock. Rock was becoming more rhythmic, more diverse, and often less heavy than had been the trend in the late ‘80s.
This album, for example, has very strong elements of funk. There’s a lot of slap bass, the guitar frequently integrates choppy rhythms with more rock-themed chord work and snippets of lead, and the drums have a lot more finesse than the sledge-hammer bashing you’d have been hearing from ‘poodle-cut’ bands in the waning throes of the previous decade. You’ll recognise the drum sound instantly, and equate it with the period. It has an open, spacious feel with quite a hollow sounding snare, and tonal variation in the fills. Classic early ’90s, and copied remorselessly in the ensuing years.
Red Hot Chili Peppers had of course already fused rock with funk, but what the Spin Doctors were doing was different, and more accessible to the mainstream audience at the time, I think. The record company, Epic (a sub-brand within Sony), didn’t see it that way though. Not initially anyway. In a 1993 interview with Guitarist magazine, Spin Doctors guitarist Eric Schenkman recalled that the label believed Pocket Full of Kryptonite was too diverse – to the extent that it wouldn’t sell. The record company, said Schenkman, were more interested in pushing Pearl Jam. But actually, ‘Kryptonite‘s diversity doesn’t lose the band identity. The style and band personality is strongly evident throughout.
Pocket Full of Kyptonite remains very listenable. And for a work recorded in 1990, which didn’t really catch on for another two or three years, it could be said to have been ahead of the curve too. The slap bass does get a bit much in places (although it’s very useful at filling out the backing during guitar solos), and if you were of critical inclination you’d perhaps accuse the band of rambling a little for the sake of it at times. But the quality of the songs is consistent, and if you like Two Princes or Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong – both popular singles from the album, you’ll almost inevitably like the rest.
Opening salvo Jimmy Olsen’s Blues is an archetype of that early ‘90s funk-rock style, Refrigerator Car tips its hat both to grunge and to some much older rock styles. Shinbone Alley is a truly great track too. I love the bass in the chorus.
Across the album, the guitar playing stands out for being intricate without self-indulgence. The chord work is beautifully voiced, and you can tell the effort went into making it sound good and opposed to clever.
THE ACTUAL CASSETTE
You can see from my photo that there’s a nice inlay with the cassette, scripting out all the lyrics, depicting the band in colour, and still making room for the Superman-themed arty album cover monochrome. The sonic reproduction is good, though for some reason nothing like as zingy as the sound on the same band’s live album Homebelly Groove. Both tapes appear to be exactly the same and have the same formulation, I’m sure.
What the formulation is I’m not sure. They’re definitely good quality, high bias tapes, but they don’t look like chrome, and in any case, by 1991, chrome substitutes were dominant. The tapes have taken very good level without distorting, and the handling of low frequencies is excellent too. I’d love to record a test sequence onto one of them, but there’s no way I’m interfering with twenty-odd year old tapes which have been perfectly preserved.
I think the Spin Doctors have proved to be an underrated band. Maybe if they’d sought to exploit the grunge market their name would have sustained with greater authority, but for me, they represented the best of early ’90s American rock, and this was a very important rock album.