Friday, March 23, 2012

Music Review - Alice Cooper - Alice Cooper Goes To Hell

Hoffometer: 9

Alice Cooper Goes To Hell was the sequel to the very popular first solo album by Alice Cooper-the man as opposed to Alice Cooper-the band. Of course when I picked this album up in the early 80s it was out of order and I didn’t consider its chronological importance. For that end I’ll only say that this was an attempt to repeat the success of Welcome To My Nightmare, intentionally using the same musicians and stylistic variety.

And you know what? It works just as well as a sequel as a standalone.
The title track is a mid-tempo rocker with plenty of instrumental passages to be used as a playground when played live, giving Alice a chance to slay some costumed beast of the week. The masterful part is that these bits add to, instead of distract from, the overall flow of the song. Alice has always stated that despite the controversy that surrounded him he always portrayed clear cut morality. The song is a Greek Chorus of sorts that condemns Alice for his actions (“Making us doubt our parent’s authority” and “You’d even feed a diabetic a candy cane”), serving as a story prelude to the rest of the album. “You Gotta Dance” is light, even including flutes. Pay no attention to the disco beat (or that Alice completely rehashed the theme of this song in “Disco Bloodbath Boogie Fever” on his Welcome to My Nightmare 2 album. It’s the weakest song on the album but the torture only lasts 2:45. The devil himself sings about himself in “I’m The Coolest”, a slow simmer of a song with jazzy drums (compare the style to “Some Folks” from the original Nightmare.) “Didn’t We Meet” is the first killer song, at least for the teenage me whose heart was packed with emotions needing an outlet. Part love song, part hard rock song, I’m still not sure what the song is about but when Cooper sings “Didn’t we meet / In the night in my sleep / Somewhere?” with such earnest yearning, well, how could my tender self not indulge? Just as Nightmare had “Only Women Bleed” so did this album need a ballad for radio. What we get is “I Never Cry,” a song which is vastly superior to “Women” with such lines as “I may be lonely / But I’m never alone” and “Just a heartache that got caught in my eye.” When the chorus brightens from the soft acoustic guitar into vibes and rich vocals it’s pure sugar. Yes, a bit syrupy hey, it’s good syrup (pure sugar, no corn syrup).

“Give The Kid A Break” finds Alice singing from hell in the first person with “Don’t know why I’m down here / Must be something I said / Or some small imperfection / In my soul or in my head.” The music is 50s influenced classic rock with lots of piano and fairly nice at that. Eventually he is answered by the devil himself and the two have a humorous conversation before Alice is abandoned by the Greek Chorus, again a trick used in Nightmare 2 (“I Gotta Get Outta Here”). “Guilty” is an auto-biographical hard rocker (nearly metal) with a very catchy chorus. And it’s an honest assessment of his standing before God, which is more than most people give. “Wake Me Gently” begins with a pretty passage played on Spanish guitar, blossoming into another gushy ballad that hit hard with the teenage me. Now that he’s in Hell Alice looks back on a life of lost opportunities and regret (“This dreams a novel / That I don’t dare complete / No happy endings read / I think the heroes dead.”) When the strings sweep in for a dramatic instrumental passage, well, it’s pure emotional manipulation but done so amazingly well you won’t stand a chance. “Wish You Were Here” breaks up the dream with heavy guitar set to a rompy/disco beat and the kind of chorus destined to remain in your head for a good long while, ending with some solid guitar solos. “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” is the classic bar song with Alice singing to a piano before everyone jumps into the pool for a big weepy singalong that heads to the finale, “Going Home,” a song which breaks my heart even now. Here Alice bares his lost soul, absolutely nailing the innate longing we all have that somewhere there is a better place. The song itself is big and dramatic with flutes and strings and timpani and horns, gushing all over itself with a killer melody that never goes over the line into camp. The lyrics capture the state of the fleeting nature of fame in that even at the height of his career he wonders “How many said / “I wonder what happened to Alice?” / How many shrugged or laughed? / How many cried?” Instead of fame and fortune he wants to be off the road, “To my own room / To all the mess / To all the dirty laundry / It looks so good, I don’t care / I’m just so glad to be back / Home sweet home.”

Rank: Essential Cooper

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