Thursday, July 24, 2014

Music Review - Alice Cooper - Raise Your Fist and Yell

In returning from his semi-retirement with the 1986 album Constrictor Alice Cooper encountered a surprising amount of backlash, notably from Al "Make-a-Green-Buck" Gore's wife Tipper Gore who has trying to "protect the children" from that horrible rock music, forming Parents Music Resource Center (PRMC) and lobbying Congress to have artists from Cooper to W.A.S.P. to Cyndi Lauper put their lyrics on the outside of their albums*. Alice Cooper's Constrictor album was one of the first that was forced to comply. This resulted in an amazing first side of Raise Your Fist And Yell, a collection of songs aggressively promoting Constitutional ideas of freedom and healthy rebellion against authority. What more could a teen (mullet wearing) male want?

How about gore? Not Tipper or Al but slasher movies. During this time these blood-fests had become mainstream. Cooper had particularly been targeted by the PRMC for his horrific shows** so he decided to give them something worthy of their criticism and upped the ante of his live shows, making them almost live slasher movies full of simulated deaths and spraying blood***. To back this up, the second side of his album concerns a serial killer. What could be better for a male teen in the late eighties than slasher movie metal music?

Whereas Constrictor was a test drive, Raise Your Fist And Yell finds Cooper comfortable with this new machine and he opens up the throttle to see how far he can push it. From the very beginning it's obvious that these attacks spurred Cooper's creative juices. "Stop pretending that you've never been bad / You're never wrong and you've never been dirty****" are the first lyrics on the album from the single "Freedom", accompanied by machine-gun metal guitars and pounding drums. The chorus is pure teen anthem: "Nobody better tell you / How to live your life" and "Freedom to rock / Freedom to talk." And yes, the snarl is back! As good as this song is, "Lock Me Up" is even better as Cooper taunts and flaunts how he's going to cover the stage with blood each night*** and if you don't like it, well... The stomping beat of "Step On You" is almost industrial metal and you can forget the "almost" for the masterfully chunky mechanical dissonant bridge. "Not That Kind of Love" is a superb cautionary tale for daughters but told from the excruciatingly honest point of view of the male. "Don't get ideas / This won't last forever / I just want to touch you / I just want to feel you" are what to expect in this hair metal bonanza.

Side Two begins with "Prince of Darkness" from the John Carpenter movie of the same name, of which Alice had a very small part*****. The song is definitely about Satan, giving Cooper a chance to sing about an aspect of his faith, and has some amazing period clean guitar tones, rising far above the movie for which it was named******. This unsettling song sets the tone for what follows, "Time To Kill" and "Chop, Chop, Chop"... the titles say it all. Even better is "Gail*******", a creepy song akin to "Mary Ann" but with a harpsichord and concerning a victim yet to be found with bugs who "serve time in her skeletal jail." Alice's chosen guitarist for this and the previous album was a Rambo beefcake named Kane Roberts who had a guitar shaped like a machine gun. Indeed his playing style was much like a machine gun, fast riffing but not thrash. Nowhere is this more evident than in the last hyper-energetic song, "Roses on White Lace", where the killer sees blood drops on the dress of a bride as roses, spouting splatter lyrics like "In my own way / I lovingly kiss the bride / With your ring in your hand / Your heart and your mouth open wide." Everything about this song is kinetic and explosive, a jaw-dropping way to end an album.

If you can't tell, I really liked Raise Your Fist and Yell. Still do. Somehow Alice was able to write a late eighties metal album that was free from most of what became genre cliches******** such that even now the album refuses to sound dated. Lyrically and thematically the album is also very strong, confidently treading on familiar, creepy Cooper territory. Quick! Someone hit the repeat button!

Rank: Essential Cooper

* Whew! That was a long sentence, wasn't it? Thanks for sticking with it.

** This was before GWAR had released an album so if you wanted over-the-top bloody stage antics this was it!

*** Of which I can attest. During the Fort Wayne show, after he decapitated the monster, which then leaned over and sprayed the crowd with fake blood, I got blood in my eye and on my jean jacket. Ruined a contact, it did. And yes, I was wearing the standard Alice Cooper eye makeup... why do you ask?

**** Can I hear an Amen? Isn't this the first step of presenting the gospel, admitting your sin? GO COOP!

***** But large enough that it coaxed me into the theater! Okay, coaxed nothing... I RAN!

****** The movie was confusing and not very enjoyable. A decade or so later, after reading a number of glowing reviews about how Prince of Darkness is an overlooked Carpenter masterpiece I watched it again. It still stunk.

******* Alice's wife's middle name is Gail. How about THAT for a tribute?

******** Okay, so the album cover is a bit cheesy and period heavy.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Worlds Most Expensive Vegetables - Part 13

It's been a tough couple of weeks in the ol' garden. Tough for bugs, that is.

About three weeks back my six year old daughter, ever the inspector, brought to my attention that there were yellow and black striped bugs in the garden. I had noticed them before but figured, "What's a garden without some bugs?" That was a mistake. These were cucumber bugs and they will destroy anything on a vine: melons, cucumbers, squash, you name it. Not only do they eat the leaves but they carry a disease that makes the plant wither and die. As my garden contains a whole lotta melons, etc I soon realized that this meant war! I'm too cheap to buy the goopy stuff that attracts and then traps these vermin (not technically vermin and I probably won't be too cheap to buy the stuff next year). Although I found them on all my vining plants, they were particularly heavy on one plant. Because I had "helpers" and didn't take especially good notes when transplanting this row of plants I'm not 100% sure of which kind of plant these bugs are chowing on, though I think it was a cucumber. I was half hoping that the plant would set some fruit so I could identify and use it next year for a decoy but alas, for all my effort this plant withered and bit the bucket. That effort was night after night of going outside with a flashlight, catching these buggers often while buggering, and squashing the squash eaters between my fingers. Early on I killed about two hundred in ten minutes but near the end my efforts had paid off to where I only found about a dozen. This same inspector daughter also noticed squash bore eggs on the zucchini plant. Tessa has earned the right to eat whatever she wants from the garden!

Just when I thought my melons were safe, though, my two year old ran over one of them in a PowerWheels car. Not just ran over but literally ran the big grinding back wheel right over the mound where one variety was growing. Fortunately they recovered and I am now extra vigilant whenever said daughter takes the wheel. Who gave her a permit, anyway? This naughty daughter also picked a wee little pumpkin that was just two inches around.

In other failures, something is eating my cauliflower plants. And the first set of broccoli plants went to seed almost immediately. It turns out that I didn't give them enough food and they starved to death. Oops.

Fortunately I was in time to fertilize batch #2 and this weekend one plant provided a tasty head of organic yumminess!

Last week was very busy after work so I barely spent any time out in the garden. However on Saturday morning I noticed that one of my cherry tomato plants had lost most of it's leaves. Weird. Since I over-planted cherry tomatoes I didn't think much about it until later in the day when I saw a big green thing moving on the wire cage. Scroll down if you're squeamish.
Yeah, it was this big yucky beast! After looking up what it was and learning that I needed to do a better job weeding around these plants I went back out and started some weeding. The sure was a lot of odd caterpillar poop around this particular plant. An awful lot. Too much and... WAAAAAAAH! THERE'S ANOTHER ONE RIGHT IN MY FACE!!!! AND ANOTHER! AND ANOTHER!!! Eventually all five of these massive nasty squishy horrible beasts were trapped in a jar where I intend to let them die a slow horrible death of either starvation or being cooked by the sun. Am I mean? Perhaps. But to show that I'm not all wretched, I captured a five legged grasshopper on a butternut squash plant and relocated him to the creek, a few hundred yards away.

Now on to the successes! We harvested a pound of delicious green beans as well as thinned out some yellow and white carrots. As of right now we have approximately two hundred and twenty green bean plants, planted over the course of two months. I hope we're buried in produce!

The Italian squash plant is starting to produce cute, keen and stripey squash, as is the zucchini but that's not a surprise to anyone. If the world ever gets destroyed by a nuke all that will be left will be cockroaches and zucchini.

Also stripey is this surprising find, a white watermelon known as Fred, or Cream of Saskatchewan. It's about four inches across already, even with our colder than normal weather, and it's got a twin and four small siblings! If this plant is able to churn out watermelons up here in Northern Indiana then I'll be one happy man!

In the "Free" department, I went poaching along the creek and brought back black raspberries. What is shown is about a fifth of what I ultimately picked. I also returned with this specimen for a bug-loving child:

So now it starts to be payback time. I spent $500 putting the garden in and have so far harvested:
1# green beans - $1
1 pint red rasp - $2.50
small strawberries - $1
5 organic beets - $3
Lettuce - 7 salads - & chives & parsley- $4
4 parisian carrots - 50 cents
mound of basil - $2
1 head broccoli - $1
Sugar Snap Peas - $3
=$18, meaning that my overall balance sheet is only $482 in the red!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Penguin Point - Footlong Spanish Hotdog

For some reason I have a soft spot in my brain for footlong hotdogs. Perhaps it's their whimsical over-the-top nature or perhaps some long forgotten event in my childhood, a normally denied extravagance granted for some reason that made me feel special and loved, but for whatever reason footlong hotdogs remain wedded in my mind with happy memories. Oddly, you rarely see both footlong hotdogs AND footlong hotdog buns in the store at the same time so if I had wanted to recreate these happy memories with my own children (before they were found to be allergic to gluten and a dozen other things) I had to find a Dairy Queen that had footlongs on their menus.

Which is why I knew from the first time that I saw the ad taped to their wall that it was my destiny to try a Penguin Point Spanish Footlong Hotdog. It didn't help that they also have it on their outdoor sign, a sign which I pass at least three times a week, it's message subliminally soaking into my brain. Spanish Footlong $3.49

Without further ado, here it is:
The big question is what makes it spanish? It looks like a coney dog to these eyes. However the sauce is less tomatoey and has more onions in it. Unlike their regular hotdogs, the bun was not verging on stale though it wasn't going to win any awards for being fresh from the factory ovens. But before I took a bit I realized that it didn't look to be quite a foot. The span of my extended hand is just under nine inches and this confirmed that the hotdog itself was likely a mere nine inches long. I'VE BEEN RIPPED OFF! While I wasn't about to wait until I got home to tape a proper measurement I did measure the paper it came in. In comparing the two photos you can see that the bun was no more than ten and a half inches and you can see that the hotdog is not exactly poking out the ends.
In all fairness, Penguin Point and other restaurants order their hotdogs and buns and serving papers from common suppliers so if the "footlong" Penguin Point Spanish dog is a mere nine inches then it's a good bet that everyone else's "footlong" is similarly sized. THIS IS A NATIONAL HOODWINKERY! SOMEONE CALL GERALDO!!!!

The hotdog itself, aside from being only 75% of what it should be, had the circumference of a dime. Skimpy. However the taste was good, especially the Spanish sauce, a zesty and meaty concoction that I wish I could try on a more substantial hotdog.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Music Review - Alice Cooper - Constrictor

One nice thing about this Alice Cooper discography review, aside from allowing me to talk to myself, is that I've been able to pin some dates on things such as the year I "discovered" the music of Mr. Cooper. That would be February 1985 when I received the Alice Cooper band Greatest Hits collection from me mum for Valentines Day. I know this because Twisted Sister's Stay Hungry came out in May 1984 and it was in reading about their influences that I read the name Alice Cooper and thought, "Isn't he that guy that was on the Muppet Show?" Months passed and I forgot to follow up on that lead until one night in which I couldn't sleep and call Rock 104 at two in the morning to ask the night DJ the name of the rock singer who had a girls name* and then a music binge where I purchased the back catalog. In 1985 came Come Out and Play, the follow up to Twisted Sisters blockbuster which included this song and video:

Alice looks rather clear-eyed, does he not? Even at 43 I get a kick out of the Tom Savini cameo.

It was also during this time, 1984 to be exact, that he tested his sobriety by featuring in the foreign film Monster Dog which sported two original songs, one of which was quite good. Constrictor came out in the fall of 1986 and was the first Cooper album which I heard about beforehand and had the chance to anticipate. At the time I had a mullet** and was deep into Dio and other metal bands so the new Cooper album felt right at home***. To freak me out even more, Alice Cooper was playing in my home town just a few days before Halloween and I was able to listen to an interview with Mr. Cooper and Doc West at Rock104****. To cap it all off, I repented and became a Christian about a week before the concert and was confused at why other Christians were picketing. Didn't they get that this was just a personna? Didn't they know that Mr. Cooper was also Christian? Neither did I! Oh, the irony!

But enough about me (though this is my therapy), how about Cooper's 16th album? For on thing, it has three bassists, which isn't exactly good, but since one of those bassist is pre-Winger Kip Winger the curse kind of cancels itself out.

So how does it stack up today? If this means anything, consider that when I started on this series I realized that I had never purchased this album on CD, content with my cassette tape in the garage, whereas I had purchased almost every other album in a digital format. However I bit the financial bullet and purchased a used CD when I started the series but have held off until today to listen and... The first thing I noticed is that for the most part the trademark vocal snarl is missing, replaced with straight singing. And the songs, well, they're kinda generic metal. Better than average, mind you, but Alice is still getting used to metal as well as working sober so there isn't a lot of "Cooper" in these songs.

You want more detail? Why sure! Focusing on the songs which sport a true Cooper vibe, there's "Teenage Frankenstein" where he appeals to the awkwardness of the teen years with lyrics of "These ain't my arms / And these legs ain't mine / I'm a teenage Frankenstein." "Life and Death of the Party" has a slightly eerie sound, though the lyrics don't really make much sense. "The World Needs Guts" has long been a favorite, whether it's the heavy yet upbeat guitar riff or the mention of blood and guts, I don't know. "The Great American success Story" was yet another attempt to get into the movies, a Rodney Dangerfield one at that, but somehow did't get picked even though it's upbeat metal-pop is top of the crop. What DID get picked was a tie in with the Friday the 13th franchise, "He's Back (The Man Behind The Mask)" which could also be about himself. This one, though very synth heavy*****, is appriately creepy but I feel that the bridge was very reminiscent of late 80s Christian cheese-rock like Degarmo & Key. Maybe D&K were taking their cues from the Coop?

Of the rest of the songs, er, "Thrill My Gorilla" has a super- heavy flange on a drum fill that sounds absolutely attrocious and "Trick Bag" is so full of poppy, glittery synthesizers that I think Prince would have been offended. Overall, though, these two plus two more that won't be mentioned are pretty generic.

To summarize, the music is good but slightly generic, very much a child of it's times.

Rank: Quality but not classic

* Ah, the days before the internets!

** Though I didn't know it was called that and was the first in my class to sport such a beast.

** I purchased the cassette at Mr. Music in Southtown Mall, neither of which exist today.

**** During said interview Alice said there would be no ballads "this time" which I took to meaning that since coming out of retirement there would be no more ballads hereafter forevermore. This added to the betrayal I felt when Poison came out.

***** It was the 80s and I learned to play this song on my Casio CZ-1 synthesizer. Simple yet effective.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Music Review - Alice Cooper - Dada

Dada is a undiscovered masterpiece despite it being the third album Alice doesn't remember recording. This was to be the final album under his contact with Warner Brothers and they gave him the money not really expecting an album in return. Instead Cooper brought back Bob Ezrin and Dick Wagner who sent Cooper "to the woodshed" over and over again until he returned with lyrics that were up to snuff. Scratch that. These lyrics are brillian! Played almost entirely on the Fairlight CMI, an early digital sampler, the album sound is lean yet orchestral and completely different from anything Alice has done before or since. It is a dark, textured, and unnerving collection of songs. Part of the discomfort stems from the "cerebral" lyrics that explore psychological themes and use ambiguity to play with your head. The album was released in 1983 and never toured. Instead Alice went back into rehab to fight for his sobriety and to win back his estranged wife who had filed for divorce.

The album begins with the cinematic "Da" whose instrumental first half is downright creepy! It may be the sample of the baby saying "Dada" that repeats every so often, the tubular bells, the unnerving low buzzing synth tones, or the eerie melody but it all works together perfectly. When the words begin it's Cooper as a character talking to his shrink and there's some confusion on his part as to if he has a son or a daughter, revealing that something is definitely not right with only a very few words. "Enough's Enough" is part two, a rocky exploration of a father and son that makes the label "dysfunctional" seem like a trip to Disneyland. "When my mother died / She laid in bed and cried/ 'I'm going to miss you my brave little cowboy.' / I saw my father smile / A smile he tried to hide / He told me, 'Son, I've really got you now, boy.'" Whatever that means it is totally messed up! The last piece of the trio, "Former Lee Warmer"*, is probably about a dead brother who is kept upstairs in the attic: "No dreams go in / No dreams go out / of the hole in his wrinkled head." And maybe he isn't dead because the singer can hear him up there playing. Starting with hushed pizzicato strings the entire song is very orchestral and masterfully composed and executed**. Near the end there is an all-too-brief instrumental passage every bit as good as those found on Welcome To My Nightmare.

Alice had to break the tension with some humor and the next few songs serve the purpose well. "No Man's Land" is the story of a guy playing Santa at a mall when a young woman comes on to him. It's upbeat and bright, almost cheery, but Wagner's sizzling guitar solo steals the show from an otherwise very well written song. "Dyslexia" is synthy and bouncy with a chorus of "Is dis love? Or is dyslexia?" No idea what it means and it sounds completely unlike an Alice Cooper song but it's a whole lotta fun! "I Love America" is good for one listen per decade with Alice playing the part of an uber-patriotic used car salesman who "love[s] that mountain with those four big heads" in addition to Velveeta on Wonderbread and commies, "if'n [they're] good and dead." If you've a hankerin' for a middle eastern heavy metal song about a pair of seductive sisters then look no further than "Scarlet and Sheba." Very nice guitar tones on this one and Cooper is able to evoke a suggestive, sinister tone without being explicit.

The album closes with a one-two punch sure to leave the listener dazed and bruised. "Fresh Blood" could be a Peter Gabriel song with synth horns, ethnic hand percussion, and a solid groove that borrows a bit from Steely Dan. The lyrics are in the first person concerning a miscreant who prowls the streets at night looking for showgirls, businessmen, cops on the beat, anyone who can provide fresh blood. The last song, "Pass the Gun Around," is achingly sad. A soft caliope opens the story of "Sonny" who needs a shot of vodka upon waking in an unknown hotel room with a stranger in his bed. The song bursts open with organs, a choir, and a change to first person. When Cooper sings "I've had so many blackout nights before / I don't think I can take this anymore" there's such anguished emotion in his voice that you know he's no longer singing about a character***. The song builds into a dramatic instrumental section where Wagner is able to stretch out and play one of the finest guitar solos of his career. It's a shame so few have heard it because Warner Brothers, not even expecting an album**** did nothing to promote this album.

Rank: Essential Cooper

* Formerly Warmer. Or Formerly Warner, concerning his record label.

** Ezrin had recently completed Pink Floyd's The Wall so much of that vibe stayed with him.

*** Trying to describe the excruciating pain of this song to an oblivious classmate in junior high is my first memory where words completely failed to capture what music easily could.

**** And with Cooper drying out.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Worlds Most Expensive Vegetables - Part 12

I skipped a week. So sue me.
I'll make up for it in pictures. Here's an overall picture where it's more difficult to see the weeds. You also can't see the cucumber bugs that are eating and mating on the melons, cucumbers, and squashies. You can't see them now either 'cause I've been out at 10:00 the last few nights with a flashlight, catching them doin' the dirty and executing them on the spot. Is nothing sacred? The first night that I counted there were close to 200 that perished but last night's battle count was under fifteen. For some reason they really like yellow crookneck squash. Not pictured is the only expense these past two weeks... a $12 Burbank plum tree which makes my total an even $500. However I didn't know that plums need a second variety so this fall I'll shop around for a Santa Rosa and this summer I'll cut down a dead tree to make room for the newest member of the family.
The great news is that the garden has started producing! For a few weeks the sugar snap peas have been limping along and more than once I've caught one of the younger kids eating a pea pod. Not a sugar snap pea but a regular pea pod full of plump uncooked peas. Weirdos. The strawberries are also revving up, though the berries are on the small side. And look at those lovely beets! I cooked up the yellow and one red last night and they were delicious! The other two red will be turned into beet chips for my lovely bride. This very early marconi pepper was sacrificed to my stomach so the plant could focus it's attention on bigger and better things (that will go into my stomach).

Plump Carrot

Here's the ol' carrot patch! Although I tried to be careful in watering the seeds tended to float away from the center. There shall be thinning in their future but for now the vacated center is being used as a second beet crop to be turned into tasty chips. And here's the first full grown carrot, a plump parisian! That was fast! I'll certainly be adding many more of these soon.

Onto the experiments! The "raised bed" box for melons is working splendidly, though it does nothing to keep the cucumber bugs at bay. And although not an official experiment, I found that the sweet potatoes that were under black plastic are growing much better than the ones without, though I have no idea how they manage to get water.

 Meanwhile, back at Compost Central, the watermelon is going gangbusters. At least I think it's a watermelon. I'll be surprised if it really grows something because it's likely the spawn of some melon grown in much warmer climates. And how about them taters? These have surprised me, growing like, er, weeds! I had some wire fencing that I made into cages and have been adding dirt as they've grown. I'm not sure but I think the wire fence came with my first house, purchased twenty odd years ago. It's from K-Mart and was made in the U.S.A.

Another surprise is the lone plant started from seed months and months ago. While not as big as the goliaths purchased at the store, the plant is taking off quite nicely. I might even get some heirloom tomatoes!
What's left? Oh, raspberries! These are from the ones transplanted from the other house. Also there are wild raspberries growing all along the creek just a brief stroll away from our house. Sure, there are tall weeds potentially full of disease carrying ticks but I'm talkin' free raspberries here! I snagged three yesterday after work but didn't explore very far. There are also what looks very much like grape vines but I'm not seeing anything grapey.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Music Review - Alice Cooper - Zipper Catches Skin

Zipper Catches Skin came out in 1982 and is the second "black out" album that Herr Cooper doesn't remember writing or recording. Or producing. This time around instead of hiring some big name producer* Alice produced the album with his current bassist, Erik Scott. Bassist as in singular, which to me is a good sign. While I got lambasted** for my semi-negative review of Special Forces, I was preparing myself for a similarly negative review of this one as the two had become mingled in my brain. But once again I find that my memory is not reliable as a stinky second side has tainted my neurons concerning a strong first side. Strong, sez I, but not strong enough to have ever been performed live, per Wiki. Curious indeed.

While similar to Special Forces in musical style, Zipper finds Alice donning a broad variety of personalities and relying more on comical sarcasm. Dick Wagner returns with his impressive guitar playing and songwriting skills, also upping the ante. "Zorro's Ascent" is a galloping ditty with a ratty guitar sound and Cooper singing with a Spanish accent in the first person as Zorro. The first two notes and the guitar tone of "Make That Money" made me wonder if I was listening to "Eighteen" but instead it's a song from the viewpoint of Scrooge. 'Tis a good song, though, and even at times sounds like Alice Cooper Band era songwriting. The laid back "I Am The Future" was written for a movie*** and has a strong, memorable, uplifting melody and wonderful synth sounds later found in DaDa. "No Baloney Homosapiens" is another surprisingly strong song with excellent Wagner guitars and lyrics written to aliens that plead "Please don't eat us." "Adaptable" is a rock-based love song, choppy in a New Wave sense, with lines like "I would leave a craps table for you on a winning streak." It's not exactly Shakespeare but it's sweet.

Then it goes downhill. "I Like Girls"**** and "Remarkably Insincere" find Cooper being a total dog and very disrespectful toward women. Sure, he sings "Cold Ethyl" but these songs are especially callous. Cooper talks instead of sings in "Tag, You're It", painting scenes from a slasher movie*** similar to Halloween while "I Better Be Good" is a ragged New Wave rocker about performing well in bed with lots of slang not fit for mixed company*****. The final track, "I'm Alive", is a novelty song about his dead pet returning to save his life. The chorus is catchy but he speaks the verses that have a limited shelf life because one can only hear a joke so many times before it wears thin.

Rank: For True Cooper Fans/Completists only

* Look what that got them last time!

** Not really... just two guys on FB who said they really liked that album but "lambasted" is a word I don't get to use often enough.

*** Alice sure loves those movies!

**** There was something about the melody in the verse of "Girls" that nagged my ear until I finally figured out that it was from "The Ballad of John and Yoko."

***** Wrangler, huh?