Thursday, September 22, 2016
When I heard that Alice Cooper’s new album was going to be classic rock covers I had no interest, especially after these same covers being the low-light of his most recent concert at the Embassy. But my mind was changed when I read that instead of his current band Mr. Cooper would be flanked by a revolving supergroup, anchored curiously by actor Johnny Depp who incidentally always considered acting a side-gig that allowed him to follow his true love of music. Add in a couple of originals and legendary producer Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Destroyer by Kiss) at the helm and I couldn’t get my credit card out fast enough.
Called The Hollywood Vampires after the heavy drinking group Cooper was a part of the late seventies, the criteria for playing on the album seems to be having had lost a band member to drugs or alcohol. Many of the original Vampires who have gone early to the grave are honored on the album including singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson. The band opens a creepy version of “One”, a Nilsson song made famous by Three Dog Night, that drop-kicks into a seriously heavy groove compliments of Dave Grohl (Nirvana) on drums, quickly sidestepping into a rousing version of “Jump Into The Fire.” “Whole Lotta Love” likewise starts in a manner that is completely different than the original before a proper rendition launches and Cooper hands the microphone off to Brian Johnson (AC/DC) while Joe Walsh (Eagles) joins Depp, Orinathi, Tommy Henriksen, and Bruce Witkin is a six string battle. That’s a whole lotta guitars! At this juncture I’d like to point out how just about every band ever formed since 1970 has tackled this and many of the songs on this album. You’ve heard ‘em yourself. Every now and then it’s been great but more often than not you wish you hadn’t turned down that last beer. Not so with this troop. These seasoned pros have more often than not shared the stage with the bands being honored and are more than capable of rendering fitting tribute. In the case of “Five to One/Break on Through” Robby Krieger plays guitars on the very song he once recorded with Morrison, surpassing the explosive energy of the original, if that’s possible. Not every song is a blistering revision, though. “Come and Get It” is fairly true, with Joe Perry (Aerosmith) on guitars joining Paul McCartney on vocals, Paul McCartney on bass and Paul McCartney on piano. Oh yeah, Paul McCartney was once in band named The Beatles with John Lennon, an original Hollywood Vampire whose song “Cold Turkey” is given a right good sendup on this platter.
Limited space restricts a full exploration of each song so instead peruse this list: “My Generation”, Slash, “Jeepster”, “Manic Depression”, Kip Winger, “Itchycoo Park”, “I Got A Line On You”, Perry Farrell, Zak Starkey. And of course why not throw in a cover of “School’s Out”, but is it a cover if 3/5 of the original band plays on it? Yessir, Neal Smith and Dennis Dunaway form the powerhouse rhythm section on this one, taking a sudden and delightful detour by mixing in bits of “Another Brick In The Wall” into the “School’s Out” rhythm.
The two original songs are good but standing sonically next to these foundations of rock reveals their limitations. Consider them freebies. While Cooper and many of his pals are well into their sixth decade of life there is no sign of letting up. The energy on these loving renditions is astounding, the sound is modern, and the Hollywood Vampires show no signs of giving up the ghost.
Wil B and Kev appear to be two men who enjoy playing with peoples’ perceptions. In their early thirties, Kev still looks like he might be a linebacker, dwarfing the violin he so skillfully plays. Both men got started on violin in their early teens and met each other in high school, finding a common bond in their love of reggae, hip-hop and classical music. Their “ah-ha” moment occurred when they taught their high school orchestra how to play “Gimme Some More” by Busta Rhymes and realized that combining classical instruments with popular music was a great way to get some female attention. Naming themselves Black Violin, it wasn’t long before the two were writing original material and crafting their own sound, ultimately leading to an album and gigs for NFL Superbowl celebrations and the White House.
Stereotypes is their second album, devised in part by produced Eli Wolf who has worked with Norah Jones, The Roots and Elvis Costello. The twelve tracks comprise three distinct types of songs. The first type is traditional R&B pop song about love, albeit with a heavy emphasis on strings. “Stay Clear” is upbeat and soulful, featuring Kandace Springs on vocals and Robert Glasper on Rhodes, and is sure to get your body moving. The slow simmering “Losing Control” could easily be heard on a number of local stations and includes a deliciously squishy bass synth tone and honest lyrics like “I’ve been lonely before / But never this lonely before.” Featuring thick drums and pizzicato strings, “Send Me A Sign” is another outstanding song of romantic longing.
The second type is musically similar but features more socially conscious lyrics. Pulsing violins form the hip-hop rhythmic bed of “Invisible”, a track featuring Pharoahe Monch who delivers encouraging rapid spoken-word rhymes about how you don’t have to be ignored and “invisible” before a sizzling violin solo slams the message home. The relaxed “Another Chance” is another inspirational gem with a chorus of “I can’t change the past / But I control the future” and the kind of strong melody that sticks in your head for days.
The third type is the more classically influenced instrumental. Bridging the gap between the last two types is the title track, “Stereotypes”, a dramatic showcase of the immense talents of these two men as they trade chops back and forth over a jazzed up hip-hop beat, pausing occasionally for audio clips of people discussing stereotypes and their experience with such. A smoky organ and hints of the seventies pervade “Walk on By” while “Day 2” is soaked in a crusty low-toned synth that opens to a shimmering, dancing piano figure that allows Kev and Wil B to explore a heart-tugging melody to its fullest. “Shaker” is the most classical of the bunch, sounding like a Mozart string quartet set to a rock beat where the duo duke it out while exploring a number of themes. The album closes with the cinematic “Runnin’”, a slow build that crescendos in a fiery exposition of melody and technical prowess that simultaneously showcases their ability to compose heart-pounding music.
Stereotypes has just enough “classical” to lift the brow slightly but not so much that it alienates those who can’t tell Bartok from Bach.
I haven't felt the need to go back to this one in the last year... it kinds creeps me out.
So there I was, minding my own business, when a knock came upon my chamber door. "Who are you?" I asked. "Anekdoten. We've been around since 1993, though our last album was in 2007," was the reply. "Never heard of ya. Show me what ya got." Ever compliant, the nice Swedes set up their gear and launched into “Shooting Star,” the first track off their new album Until All The Ghosts Are Gone. Ten minutes long, this nearly instrumental track was propelled by hard-edged psychedelic rock organs, at times drawing from the well of King Crimson’s Red album and other times throwing a bone to fellow Swedes Opeth, now and then throwing a loving glance at Machine Head-era Deep Purple. It was some good stuff, feeding the brain and the soul, I tells ya, and I instantly wanted to shop at Ikea. As that was a road trip I couldn’t afford to take, I set up a folding chair to get comfortable and asked them to play me another song.
They obliged. “Get Out Alive” has a stoner rock feel but with a psychedelic twist, kind of like 70s Black Sabbath meets Black Moth Super Rainbow. Maybe there’s a little Super Furry Animals in there also. The combination of gutsy, distorted guitars and clear cinematic strings pulsing through a well-conceived song development cycle was absolutely hypnotic, beautiful even, in a bleak kind of way. “If It All Comes Down To You” cranks up the mellotron flute sound, as much as a flute can be cranked, layering in billows of clean electric guitars and vibraphone, creating an expansive, airy cloud of a song that made me think more than once of the subtle yet epic compositions of Oceansize, lots of tension and very little release. I applauded and this encouraged the band to continue, launching in “Writing on the Wall,” a more aggressive song starting with gritty bass guitar, orchestral strings, very few vocals, and a powerful, insistent finale. Like their other songs, despite there being a lot going on the overall feel was soothing and I had the feeling that if I listened to their music with headphones and a black light there would be no need for any chemical enhancements to achieve a satisfying head trip. As no one in the band had brought their black lights they instead played “Our Days Are Numbered”, starting with vibraphone and flute to set a comforting tone before dropping the floor out via a creepy section that morphed directly into a dense, heavy rock feel with a tumble of drums and a twisty bass line. Five minutes of adventurous, intense rock later the band dips into a dreamy section and before I know it I realize that they’ve snuck saxophones into the mix. This builds to a passage that would please any Syd-era Pink Floyd fans, adding in a twitchy rhythm in the drums that only adds to dark, brooding feel of the piece. As the song ends I sit there, stunned, on my lawn chair, impressed that they were able to suck me in so thoroughly on the very first listen. Therein is their genius as the music of Anekdoten is fully grounded in the psychedelic/English progressive music of very early seventies and yet is modern and fresh, both novel and nostalgic. Kudos, melancholy Swedes! You’ve won me over.