Tuesday, September 14, 2010

September 14: Spin Doctors, "Jimmy Olsen's Blues"

Artist: Spin Doctors
Song: "Jimmy Olsen's Blues"
Album: Pocket Full Of Kryptonite
Year: 1991

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Throughout the course of music history, one can make a strong case around the idea that a majority of hit songs come from one extreme in terms of mood.  In nearly every case, the song is either amazingly upbeat or very toned down and reflective, with very few hit songs representing the middle ground.  This is not to say that there are not a handful of exceptions, but it is clear that one of the key elements to a song finding success is a well established mood.  During the late 1980's and early 1990's, a majority of the songs at the top of the charts were either the gloomy, almost downtrodden songs of "grunge," or the aggressive sounds of "gangsta rap," with very few hit songs representing any other style.  Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a movement dubbed the "neo-hippies" sprang to life.  Bringing a strangely upbeat mood to their music, it was in many ways a breath of fresh air, and few bands represented this new sound as well as New York City's Spin Doctors.  Having honed their skills and built a decent fanbase from relentless touring, the group released their studio debut in the form of 1991's Pocket Full Of Kryptonite, and on the strength of this record, they were overnight sensations.  Presenting a high-energy, carefree feeling, the group stood in contrast to nearly everything else that was happening with the music scene.  Though they are perhaps best known for their surprise hit, "Two Princes," it is 1991's "Jimmy Olsen's Blues" that is truly the bands' finest musical achievement.

From the moment "Jimmy Olsen's Blues" begins, it seems to be standing in contrast to the title, as the song has an unusual energy, set into motion by the piercing guitar riff from Eric Schenkman.  This riff not only sets the tone for the song, but as the lead track on the album, it represents the spirit of the entire record.  Schenkman is quickly joined by the dual percussion of Aaron Comess and John Bush, and it is this element of the music that gives Spin Doctors a bit of a "jam band" sound.  Rounding out the musicians strong of the band is bassist Mark White, and he is far more prominent in the mix than a majority of bassists at the time.  Truth be told, few songs present a more balanced mix of instruments than one finds on "Jimmy Olsen's Blues," and it gives each band member a chance to prove that Spin Doctors were unquestionably some of the most talented players of their generation.  The song is also far more musically structured than a majority of the other songs being released at the time, as the bridge section features one of the more beautiful musical progressions of the era.  It is also during these non-verse sections that one can hear more ties to the "jam band" sound, as there is an exploratory spirit within them.  The creativity on "Jimmy Olsen's Blues" seems to be endless, and it is due to this diversity in sound that this song stands far above the rest of the bands work and remains one of the greatest songs of the entire decade.

While the music throughout "Jimmy Olsen's Blues" is nothing short of fantastic, it is the vocal work of Chris Barron that makes the song truly special.  Throughout the album, he proved to be one of the most powerful singers of his generation, and there is an unguarded joy within his singing that is rarely found elsewhere.  Easily able to work in any part of the musical spectrum, it is clear that Barron was letting the song take him where it wanted, as opposed to following a regimented singing pattern.  This again lends itself to the "jam band" style, and yet few singers of that genre even come close to the sheer power and beauty of the voice of Chris Barron.  As is the case with nearly every song on Pocket Full Of Kryptonite, the entire band takes writing credit for this song, so they all deserve a nod for composing one of the most truly enjoyable tracks ever.  Though many songs have been written about superheros, few have taken the unique perspective that is suggested by the title and words of "Jimmy Olsen's Blues."  Sung from the viewpoint of the young (fictional) photographer, the song paints a perfect picture of how jealous he could have been at the relationship of the two people he idolized.  Yet it is taking on this odd perspective that makes "Jimmy Olsen's Blues" one of the most unique love songs ever composed, and there is a brilliantly tragic feeling when Barron sings, "...I can't believe my dilemma is real, I am competing with The Man Of Steel..."

Whenever an artist presents a completely new perspective on an overly explored subject, it can often cause a great deal of controversy, and when if this subject is a positive icon, this can become quite heated.  However, the comic book geeks of the world seemed to take "Jimmy Olsen's Blues" in stride, and this was perhaps due to the fact that the tone of the song can be related to by nearly any person from any generation.  Truth bet old, few songs present the idea of longing for a woman who is in love with the "big, strong, good looking" man, as few men have ever been shown in the same light as Superman.  The fact that Spin Doctors were able to see through the eyes of the "lesser" Jimmy Olsen with such honesty serves as a testament to their amazing imaginations, as quite literally, this idea had never before been even remotely explored to such depths.  Furthermore, the power and conviction with which Chris Barron sings almost makes it feel as if it is Olsen himself, and this quality is what sets Barron far apart from his peers.  From the album's title to seemingly underhanded slights like, "...he's leaping buildings in a single bound, and I'm reading Shakespeare in my place downtown...," the band leaves no stone unturned in their almost vilifying attack of Superman, and yet the song moves far beyond "a song about a comic book."  In every aspect, Spin Doctors proved that they were unlike any other band of their generation, and their fantastic musical talents, as well as the phenomenal voice of Chris Barron can be enjoyed to the fullest on their 1991 song, "Jimmy Olsen's Blues."

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