Pocket Full of Kryptonite by Spin Doctors

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Pocket Full of Kryptonite by Spin DoctorsAs the Grateful Dead’s long career began to wind down in the early nineties, there were many pseudo-hippie, jam-oriented bands that emerged to fill the void for the “dead heads”. Although many would ultimately have long and successful careers (i.e. Phish, Widespread Panic), none would achieve greater concentrated commercial success than the Spin Doctors. The band’s debut album, Pocket Full of Kryptonite, released in 1991, became a huge (albeit belated) commercial success through 1993 and 1994. This was fueled by some catchy and concise pop songs, starting with “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” followed by “Two Princes” and “Jimmy Olson Blues”.

Pocket Full of Kryptonite languished for nearly a year as the band embarked on nearly non-stop touring of small and medium clubs in the Northeast. Then some of the songs were finally picked up by radio, and once in the rotation, these songs stuck around for a long time. The catchy, repetitive, three or four chord riffs and funky rhythm were perfectly suited for radio in the early nineties and Spin Doctors soon became a sensation, selling millions of albums around the world. Ultimately, the multi-platinum album sold millions world-wide and Spin Doctors looked poised to launch a long and successful career. But this was not to be, the band’s fame seemed to decline nearly as rapidly as it rose, by 1996 they were no longer a major label act.

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Pocket Full of Krypotonite by Spin Doctors
Released: August 20, 1991 (Epic)
Produced by: Frank Aversa, Peter Deneberg, Frankie La Rocka, Spin Doctors
Recorded: Power Station & RPM Studios, New York, August-December 1990
Track Listing Band Musicians
Jimmy Olsen’s Blues
What Time Is It?
Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong
Forty or Fifty
Refrigerator Car
More Than She Knows
Two Princes
Off My Line
How Could You Want Him
Shinbone Alley/Hard to Exist
Chris Barron – Vocals
Eric Schenkman – Guitars, Piano, Vocals
Mark White – Bass
Aaron Comess – Drums, Vocals

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There is something really cool about the tie-in of the album’s title with the opener “Jimmy Olsen Blues”. This catchy song tells the story of an alternate universe where young Jimmy Olsen plots the destruction of the ultimate superhero to win the affection of Lois Lane. Like most of the hits, the song is fueled by the riffs of guitarist Eric Schenkman which cut through the moderate and measured vocals of Chris Barron.

“Two Princes” would ultimately become the band’s biggest ever hit, not just through radio and commercial channels, but also in pop culture. It was used as song of celebration by the 1993 National League Champion Philadelphia Phillies, as a theme on several television shows including the children’s show Sesame Street and an Israeli TV comedy, and has been featured in several movies as well as covered by many bands.

While most of the tracks on Pocket Full of Krytonite are short, pop-ready hits, the band does takes some different approaches. The nearly pure funk “What Time Is It?”, is led by the slap-bass of Mark White while their “jam band” core seeps through in songs such as the ten minute closer “Shinbone Alley/Hard To Exist”.

Although, Spin Doctors would go on to record and release five more studio albums through 2005, none of these would achieve any critical recognition or commercial success of note.

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1991 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1991 albums.

 

Graceland by Paul Simon

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Graceland by Paul SimonIn some of our previous reviews from the year 1986, you’ve probably already heard us mention several times our distaste for the slick sound that was predominant throughout releases issued that year. We’ve also lamented the fact that even established acts like Genesis and Journey seemed to fall into the “group think” of replicating this uninspired, artificial, “modern” sound to some extent or another. In the midst of all this, comes a breath of fresh air in Paul Simon’s Graceland, a true original.

The album contains a wide array of styles and sounds from vast corners of the globe, often intermingled together in ingenious ways by Simon, who was also the album’s producer. He enlisted over 50 musicians and singers to perform on this album, with a vast amount coming from South Africa and receiving their first exposure to a western audience. But African music is just one element on this diverse album which also includes a healthy mix of country, Tex-Mex, and reggae influence throughout, while also maintaining some of the signature Paul Simon styles that he had developed throughout his long career.

But simply throwing together all these elements is not, in of itself, enough to make a great album. It takes a bit of musical genius as well as the courage to take chances and go against the musical mainstream. Simon surely does this on Graceland. He uses the bass guitar as a lead instrument throughout, he adds the world elements strategically and in judicious doses perfectly straddling the line between the deep, philosophical artist and jocular clown to reach a notch of originality which is truly his and his alone.

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Graceland by Paul Simon
Released: August 12, 1986 (Warner Brothers)
Produced by: Paul Simon
Recorded: Johannesburg, London, & New York, February 1985 – June 1986
Side One Side Two
The Boy In the Bubble
Graceland
I Know What I Know
Gumboots
Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes
You Can Call Me Al
Under African Skies
Homeless
Crazy Love, Vol. II
That Was Your Mother
All Around the World
(or Myth of Fingerprints)
Primary Musicians
Paul Simon – Lead & Background Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Bass
Ray Phiri – Guitars
Adrian Belew – Guitars, Synths
Bakithi Kumalo – Bass
Ladysmith Black Mambazo – Vocal Ensemble
Isaac Mtshali – Drums
Ralph MacDonald – Percussion

Paul Simon’s previous album was 1983’s Heart’s and Bones, which has since been praised by critics (including this one), but was a bitter commercial disappointment at the time of its release. Simon felt that he had lost his popular momentum and that his commercial fortunes were unlikely to change. So for the album which would become Graceland, he decided to be highly experimental since he had nothing to lose. After hearing a cassette recording of a song called “Gumboots” by Boyoyo Boys, he traveled to South Africa to embrace the culture and find a suitable place to record the album. For this particular song, Simon wrote the lyrics and melody but pretty much left the rest of “Gumboots” in tact – a fast-paced accordian-driven song that sounds like a warped version of polka.

The popular South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo play a big part in two songs – “Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes” and “Homeless” – the latter being completely a capella with much of the lyric in Zulu. The group was founded by the legendary Joseph Shabalala who co-wrote both of these songs with Simon. The final South African influence comes from the female vocal group The Gaza Singers who co-wrote and sang backup on the song “I Know What I Know”.

Paul Simon in 1986

The catchy and upbeat “You Can Call Me Al”, with lyrics describing a mid-life crisis, became the biggest hit from Graceland. Musically, the track features a penny whistle solo by Morris Goldberg and a palindromic bass run by Bakithi Kumalo. But the most memorable impression left by the song was the popular music video starring Simon and comedian Chevy Chase, in which the 6’9″ Chase lip-syncs the vocals while an annoyed-looking 5’3″ Simon mimics various instrumental sections, including the above-mention penny whistle and bass as well as percussion and horn parts. The video introduced the 45-year Simon to a whole new generation on MTV.

Graceland also contains several songs on which Simon collaborated with some of his American counterparts. He sings a beautiful duet with Linda Ronstadt in the calm and thoughtful “Under African Skies” and enlists Los Lobos as a backup band for the closer “All Around the World or The Myth of the Fingerprints”. But, by far, Simon’s most rewarding collaboration came in the album’s title song “Graceland”.

While still teenagers in the Bronx in the late fifties, a young Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel (who at the time called themselves “Tom & Jerry”) would spend hours trying to master the harmonies of Phil & Don Everly. For the song “Graceland”, these same Everly Brothers provided background harmonies for Simon nearly three decades later. The song at once contains an upbeat, almost country & western sound, while also providing ethereal and deliberate lyrics on top. Simon would later say that this was the best song he ever wrote. While that may be a stretch, we do agree it is a great song.

Warner Brothers almost didn’t release this album because they thought it was too far “out there” for a mainstream audience to accept. When they finally relented, they were surely glad that they did as Graceland went platinum five times over. In the end, Paul Simon provided yet another example of the wonderful things that can be created when a talented musician strips away all commercial concerns and just lets his talent and instinct take over.

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1986 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration anniversary of 1986 albums.

 

The Bridge by Billy Joel

The Bridge by Billy JoelBilly Joel‘s 1986 studio album, The Bridge, represents a crossroads on many fronts. It is the seventh and final Billy Joel studio album to be produced by Phil Ramone. Ramone, starting with The Stranger in 1977, forged the sound during the most successful span of Joel’s career. It was also Joel’s first album during the 1980’s to not be focused on a single, overriding concept. 1980’s Glass Houses was punk/new wave, 1982’s The Nylon Curtain was social commentary, and 1983’s An Innocent Man was homage to musical styles and personalities of the past. The Bridge is very diverse, incorporating many styles as well as several guest musicians. On a final note, this album is first of Billy Joel’s “family-centric” releases that would wind down his career as a pop musician.

The Bridge features vividly picturesque songs, each of which cross over well to other media. “Modern Woman” was featured in a Hollywood movie, “Big Man On Mulberry Street” was used in a television show, “This Is the Time” was commonly the backdrop during tributes and retirements, and “A Matter of Trust” was featured in one of the iconic music videos of the day. Even the lesser known songs on the album, such as “Temptation” and “Running On Ice” – sound like they would work well in the visual medium.

After a bit of a hiatus from recording, Joel began work on the album in 1985.

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The Bridge by Billy Joel
Released: July 9, 1986 (Columbia)
Produced by: Phil Ramone
Recorded: The Power Station & Chelsea Sound, New York City, 1985-1986
Side One Side Two
Running On Ice
These Are the Times
A Matter of Trust
Modern Woman
Baby Grand
Big Man On Mulberry Street
Temptation
Code of Silence
Getting Closer
Primary Musicians
Billy Joel – Piano; Keyboards, Guitar, Lead Vocals
Russell Javors – Guitars
Rob Mounsey – Synthesizers & Orchestration
Doug Stegmeyer – Bass
Liberty Devito – Drums & Percussion

The album’s first song “Running on Ice” shows that this is a long way from the “Piano Man” days. With a heavily “modern” (for 1986) sound which could be an updated version of the ska-influenced Police tracks and a frantic, sound-effect washed, tense verse that gives way to a flowing chorus section. The album then settles into a nice groove with “This Is the Time”. Featuring some excellently over laid guitars by Russell Javors, “This Is the Time” is a melancholy yet sweet ballad, which shows that Billy Joel was still in the upper pantheon of songwriting in 1986. It is a song of self-awareness, of a happy life and the grasping at the nostalgia which will surely follow these days –

“a warmth from the memory of days to come…” 

Billy Joel A Matter of Trust singleIn the video for “A Matter of Trust”, Billy Joel is seen playing a Les Paul in this guitar-centric and entertaining hard rocker, which takes yet another departure from his traditional sound but was yet another hit. Joel is the absolute master of vocal melody making it all sound so natural and effortless, which plays a big part in being able to jump from genre to genre. “Big Man On Mulberry Street” goes in an almost completely opposite direction of the rock song. It is a Broadway-esque show tune with elements of big band and jazz. An extended version of the song was used on an episode bearing the same name on the hit television Moonlighting, starring Cybil Sheppard and Bruce Willis.

Rounding out the album’s second side, “Temptation” is another excellent song which hearkens back to 1970s-era Billy Joel in style. “Code of Silence” may be the only song in Joel’s catalog where he uses a co-writer, the flamboyant yet talented Cyndi Lauper. “Getting Closer” is a song of hope born out of the ashes of cynicism and features the legendary Steve Winwood on Hammond organ.

But the true legend on the album is Ray Charles. who performs a duet with Billy Joel on the song “Baby Grand”. The two originally got together when Charles found out that Joel had named his daughter Alexa Ray in honor of Ray Charles so Charles contacted him and suggested that they may want to work together, if they could find the “right song.” Joel considered Ray Charles one of his idols; “…as big of a pianist or as big of a star I could ever become, I could never be Ray Charles….” Joel got right to work, trying to compose a song in the style of Charles’ classic “Georgia on My Mind”, and wrote “Baby Grand” over the course of one night. Joel originally sang the song in his thick New York accent, but decided to do a Charles impression instead once he got comfortable working with him. The finished product is as much a tribute to Charles himself as it is to the instrument they both love.

Although The Bridge was a bit weaker commercially than many of Joel’s previous albums, it is a solid album through and through and especially shines in comparison to the weak music scene in 1986.

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1986 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration anniversary of 1986 albums.

 

3.V by Zebra

3.V by ZebraThe three-piece rock band Zebra did not spend a long time on the national scene, nor did they have tremendous success while they were on that scene. But there is no doubt that they made some unique and original music while they were there. They are, in a sense, a rare and secret gem of a band which fewer have enjoyed than legitimately should have, due mainly to the lack of the support which they legitimately earned and deserved. That being said, there are some striking fouls and unforced errors that the band made once they did reach the national stage and it cannot be denied that, to a small extent, they had a hand in their own professional demise.

By 1986, the band was facing pressure from Atlantic Records to produce a hit album. Zebra’s self-titled debut album was released in 1983 to critical acclaim and moderate sales. They followed that up with the Jack Douglous-produced No Tellin’ Lies in 1984, but unfortunately this sophomore effort had weaker sales and a Luke-warm reception. For their third release, the band made a concerted effort to create a more widely-accepted pop-rock album and to this end, Zebra succeeded. However, by the time 3.V (pronounced “three point five”) was put on sale, the record company had all but pulled support for the project, dooming it to obscurity despite the fact that includes some of the band’s finest work. It would be the their last album for 16 years, a swan song of sorts as they spent their last creative energy on this final run at fame.

But back to the flaws and fouls committed by the band themselves. Although 3.V contains no terrible songs, the sequence of songs is suspect, such as opening with the uninspiring “Can’t Live Without” while burying the fine gem “About to Make the Time”. The album is plagued by clusters of both mediocrity as well as pure brilliance, which makes it feel unbalanced to the listener. Also, the confusing title – using mixed media to resolve a nonsensical phrase – was a serious faux pas for a band who really needed to hit this out of the park commercially. Finally, there is the production quality, something that had hampered the band’s sound on all of their recordings.

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3.V by Zebra
Released: November, 1986 (Atlantic)
Produced by: Zebra
Recorded: 1986
Side One Side Two
Can’t Live Without
He’s Making You the Fool
Time
Your Mind’s Open
Better Not Call
You’ll Never Know
About to Make the Time
You’re Only Losing Your Heart
Hard Living Without You
Isn’t That the Way
Band Musicians
Randy Jackson – Acoustic & Electric Guitars, Lead Vocals
Felix Hanemann – Bass, Keyboards, Vocals
Guy Gelso – Drums, Percussion, Vocals

There is a surreal quality to the Zebra sound, a distance and narrowness which makes it either sound like it comes from some exotic, unidentified place or sound like it’s not quite professional. The truth is, it is a bit of both. Despite the band’s concerted effort to make a more pop-friendly album and the corresponding adjustment in production technique, 3.V still possesses this quality for better or worse.

On the downside there is “Can’t Live Without”, the opening and song and emphasis single from the album. After starting with a nice acoustic under some scat vocals, the song kicks into a full-fledged 80s sound, with an over-processed snare drum, saturation of keyboards, and a weak bass presence. The vocals stay mainly in the high register, which gives it a bit of monotony vocally. On most of this album, lead singer Randy Jackson alternates between the standard and falsetto voice, providing dramatic contrast in the process. But not on this opening song.

On the higher end, there are the songs which follow in sequence on the first side. “He’s Making You the Fool” contains some real sonic treats during the bridge and in the coda, with entertaining and alternating vocal motifs. This then fades into the real classic of the album, “Time”. Containing a pleasant 12-string acoustic throughout, which even allows bass player Felix Hanemann to get in some rare features of that instrument, this is perhaps the best piece that the band has ever recorded. Even with a heavier chorus, “Time” maintains a melancholy mood throughout and it contains a brilliant ending addendum section which really brings the whole piece home.

Next comes a 180-degree mood shift with the inspiring and uplifting “Your Mind’s Open”, a great song fueled by good keyboards (also played by Hanemann), just the right flavoring of acoustic and vocal effects, and some vivid lyrics such as “taking safaris right up into the sky…”

The true highlight of the second side is “About to Make the Time”, a very interesting, acoustic-driven song with steady bass riff and good bass presence throughout. It is a philosophical song which establishes a long pattern that works very well with repetition and should have been placed as the last song on the album – it would have been a gem of a closer.

The rest of 3.V contains mostly adequate but unspectacular songs, all within the Zebra style and musical direction, but in no way furthering the band’s quest to remain any longer with a major label. It is really a shame because this band had the potential to create much more quality material.

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1986 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration anniversary of 1986 albums.

 

Imagine by John Lennon

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Imagine by John Lennon

Imagine, the second full post-Beatles album by John Lennon, kicks off with an idyllic song envisioning a utopian world where there is no conflict and everyone agrees. Sounds pretty good on the surface, but this is where the art of making a album comes into play. The title song taken on it’s own may lead the listener to believe that this is how Lennon wished the world would be some day. But listening to the album as a whole completes the picture of how Lennon really seemed to view his world.

In many ways, the album was a musical continuation of Lennon’s 1970 debut John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, which also featured Phil Spector as producer and a heavy presence by Klaus Voormann on the bass guitar. Many songs from Imagine (especially those on the “second side”) feel like they could have been left over from that previous album. However, there is a clear and distinct departure on Imagine towards a more cerebral and measured approach to these deep, inner subjects as opposed to the raw “primal scream” method on Plastic Ono Band.

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Imagine by John Lennon
Released: September 9, 1971 (Apple)
Produced by: Phil Spector, John Lennon, & Yoko Ono
Recorded: Ascot Studio (John Lennon’s Home), Tittenhurst Park, England,
Record Plant, New York, June-July, 1971
Side One Side Two
Imagine
Crippled Inside
Jealous Guy
It’s So Hard
I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier
Gimme Some Truth
Oh My Love
How Do You Sleep?
How?
Oh Yoko!
Primary Musicians
John Lennon – Guitar, Piano, Harmonica, Whistling, Vocals
George Harrison – Guitars, Dobro
Klaus Voormann – Bass
Nicky Hopkins – Piano
Alan White – Drums, Percussion

 
The song “Imagine” is perhaps the most recognizable and universally appealing song John Lennon ever released. It has become the anthem of “peace” for generations, with it’s Garden of Eden-esque quality and a child-like or even animal-like interaction with the surrounding environment, where there is no danger and nothing to fear. It is technically stunning in it’s simplicity but not as deep as the rest of the album.

“Crippled Inside” is where we begin to peel back the pretty scenery to find the dirt and rocks beneath the surface. The song has an earthy, country vibe. You can picture the good old boys sitting around on a porch jamming out this tune. All that is missing is the jug and washboard.

A personal statement in the form of an honest and heartfelt apology and asking for forgiveness, “Jealous Guy” is a pleasant song. Spector’s presence is obvious, with the trademark strings building behind the fine ballad. Spector-ization of this album is a double edged sword – the simple, honest themes are probably best in their stripped down version, but Spector’s production does add a bit of richness and commercial appeal

Despite the strength of “Imagine” and “Jealous Guy,” The first side of the album is bogged down with much filler and is ultimately much weaker and less interesting than side two, where the action is. From the simple love song, “Oh My Love” to the deep, introspective “How?”, which includes perhaps the best lyric on the album-

“How can I go forward when I don’t know which way I’m facing?”

The second side also includes a very personal dig at Lennon’s former bandmate and songwriting partner. Earlier in 1971, Paul McCartney had released his second solo album Ram, which contained the opening song “Too Many People” that had some harsh lyrics directed at John and his wife, Yoko Ono. “John had been doing a lot of preaching”, McCartney admitted in 1984. “I wrote, ‘Too many people preaching practices,’ that was a little dig at John and Yoko”. “How Do You Sleep?” was a direct response, with even less veiled criticism that directly took on McCartney with clear references and double-entendres.

“Gimme Some Truth” is the best song on this album. It is a rant expressing John’s frustration with the general bullshit of life and society. It features scathing lyrics delivered in a syncopated rhythm against a background heavy with bass and drums –

“I’m sick to death of seeing things from tight-lipped, condescending, mama’s little chauvinists All I want is the truth Just gimme some truth now I’ve had enough of watching scenes of schizophrenic, ego-centric, paranoiac, prima-donnas”

It is a precise statement about politicians lying and propagandizing – cut the crap and just tell the truth.

Although the album features Beatles band mate George Harrison as lead guitarist, he does not shine too brightly at any one moment. Pianist Nicky Hopkins, however, provides some great virtuoso and memorable playing, especially on “Crippled Inside”, “Jealous Guy”, and the upbeat pop song, “Oh Yoko!”. Alan White takes over for Ringo on drums and there are many guest musicians, including several members of the band Badfinger.

John Lennon in studio, 1971

On Imagine, John Lennon slides from themes of love, life, political idealism, to raw emotion. Honesty is an ongoing theme in his lyrics, especially after he descends from the polyanic vision of the theme song. It settles on the more realistic theme of life is not perfect, but if one lives honestly, loves fully and rises above the conflicts, it’s pretty close.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1971 albums.

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