Friday, March 16, 2012

Music Review - School's Out - Alice Cooper (band)

This is the first of what I hope to be a series of reviews of cherished albums that I didn’t get to review professionally either because A) I found out about them too late after their release to review them, B) They were released before I started reviewing or C) insert lame joke here.

First up to bat is School’s Out by the Alice Cooper band. Unless you live in a remote corner of Idaho you’ve heard the title track many many many many times. It’s a good song but it does get a bit tired after the hundredth hearing. However it’s got lots of youthful energy and an amazing bass line. When I first heard this album I didn’t care much for it… too jazzy. Jazzy? Alice Cooper? Yes indeedy! This album, while hard rocking, also jumps all over the place stylistically. Though I’ve never been one to shy away from differing styles I just didn’t take a shine to this album for the first few years. And then I started to play the bass guitar and realized that School’s Out is a FORGOTTEN BASS MASTERWORK! I’d read that by this time in their career they were all drinking a lot and possibly doing drugs but Dennis Dunaway had to be completely sober to pull off the amazing bass parts on this album. It’s not that they’re especially tricky (though they may be) it’s that they are central to each song and astoundingly inventive.

“Luney Tune” is the track which follows the famous title track and that bass is a spongy slithering bouncy beast. The freaky song starts out spooky, then has a brief western-like interlude followed by sweeping strings before heading back to an extended instrumental outro spiked by a violin solo. What?!??! “Gutter Cats Vs. The Jets” opens with solo bass for thirty seconds, laying down an impressive rhythm before skyrocketing into the atmosphere. Listening again I’m just continually struck at the inventiveness of the bass line. The song itself is based on West Side Story and goes through a number of parts in telling its tale, becoming quite progressive in its structure. Once again you may find yourself wondering, “This is Alice Cooper, right? “Got You Under My Wheels”, right?” “Street Fight” is fifty-three seconds of fight sounds over a repeating bass figure. So as not to break the trend “Blue Turk” opens with a gritty bass line soon augmented by drums and electric keyboard and jazzy guitars. Heck, the whole song is jazzy! The subject matter is classic creepy-Cooper, a prelude to “Cold Ethyl” but I dare you to keep that chorus out of your head. Did I mention this song has a muted trumpet and un-muted saxophone, each of which get a chance to solo while the rest of the band jams around jazz-wize? I’m no expert on jazz, heck, I’m not even a dabbler in jazz, but this sounds authentic to me, making me wonder if the band was replaced by old geezers.

Side two. “My Stars” rips to life with long running arpeggios played on the piano. When did they start to play the piano!?!? I’m guessing it was their producer, Bob Ezrin. Anyway, the song completely rocks, leading the way to “Public Animal #9”. “Me and Jimmy, we ain’t never gonna con-fess / We cheated at the math test / We carved some dirty words in our desk / And now it’s time for recess.” The song itself is jazz-rock with a nice swagger but has the misfortune of ending with Cooper hoarsely shouting out the title of the song over and over, the albums only semi-weak point. It gets a bit thin is all I’m saying. A rumble of thunder introduces “Alma Mater”, a soft, sad song with lyrics of “Rain is falling down my check/ Searching for the sea.” Sniff. The song is a heartfelt longing for the “good times” of high school, even mentioning their alma matter by name. About halfway through the drums kick in and the band brings a joyous feel to the song with lyrics of “I finally grew up / They finally let me outta school” while a western guitar part evokes images of the Arizona desert. As the song ramps up to a rocking finale Alice amazingly captures the mixed feelings of the recently graduated who has no life plans. “Maybe I’ll see you around sometime, huh?” and “I hope you don’t forget me or nothin’.” Good stuff! The final track is a 4:25 instrumental packed with horns and synths and strings, plus the usual rock instruments, a true rock orchestra.

School’s Out is a classic and their third under producer Bob Ezrin. I really can’t emphasize enough the importance of a strong producer correctly matched with the band. For exhibit A I point to the first two Alice Cooper albums under Frank Zappa. I think he just put them in the studio and hit the record button. They were creative but without focus. Messy messy messy! Ezrin was brought in when they switched labels and it was a perfect match. Not only did he sharpen their musical energies with forced practice and re-writing of songs but he added his own theatrical background and creative touches, making the band into the juggernaught of the early 70s.

Rank: Essential Cooper

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