Album Review: SPIN DOCTORS – If The River Was Whiskey




Ruf Records [06.05.13]

Given the Spin Doctors penchant for funky rhythms and their early 90’s Hendrix meets Parliament style jamming, the idea of a blues album isn’t necessarily as incredulous as it might sound.

The band paid their blues dues in the late 80’s New York blues clubs and they were known for stretching genres and jamming with like minded souls. But it’s one thing to revert to your roots and quite another to play the blues with conviction. Happily the Spin Doctors manage to re-connect with the genre on their own terms and this CD is as much a signature Spin Doctors album as it is a blues album.

There’s a down to the bone, dirt in the tracks feel, punctuated by barbed wire guitar solos, eclectic lyrics, funky rhythms, loose limbed grooves and Chris Barron’s unique vocals. If there’s a downside, it’s simply that the album probably lacks a little bit of feel.

The band certainly connect on a visceral level, but perhaps only ‘Sweetest Portion’ – written a long time ago when they were finding their feet – makes the kind of emotional connection that ultimately nails a blues album. Barron’s Dylan style phrasing on some heartfelt lyrics gives the track real presence.

‘If The River Was Whiskey’ is an original take on the blues by a video generation band. It’s a bustling, organic and eclectic effort that is recorded in an old school way. At times it all teeters on the brink of collapse, but they find their equilibrium through some inspired moments.

The band lay down a marker on the opening Mississippi backwoods feel of ‘Some Other Man Instead’. The smoking groove is anchored by Aaron Comess’s shuffle- drum pattern, coloured by the Eric Schenkman’s conversational guitar parts and shaped by Chris Barron’s unique vocal performance.

You get the feeling that while the rhythm section and vocalist are quite happy to slip into a blues mode, this album represents an opportunity for guitarist Eric Schenkman to shine. He stars on two raw and rough cut solos on the humorous ‘Traction Blues’. The stuttering, staccato bursts evoke the spontaneity of the younger Buddy Guy. It’s edgy and exciting, though you are not always sure where he is going.

Chris Barron’s Chris Duarte style phrasing is repeated on the closing ‘What My Love’ and the title track nails a Spartan sound, with  a Hound Dog Taylor meets Al ‘Blind Owl’ Wilson feel.  The recycled blues metaphors of ‘About A Train’ are enunciated by Chris’s exaggerated diction and an extended swoop that emulates an instrument. The steam train outro is priceless and the track envelops you with its ragged groove and banishes any doubts about the band tackling the blues.

‘The Drop’ could actually have come from one of their previous albums and ‘So Bad’ is born of a contrasting light percussive touch and dark subject matter, before they finally rock out on ‘What My Love’.

The Spin Doctors’ idiosyncratic take on the blues might not convert the doubters but there’s plenty here worth revisiting.  **** (4/5)

Review by Pete Feenstra


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