Tuesday, September 20, 2011

CD Odyssey Disc 321: Kiss

The CD Odyssey is on a bit of seventies roll, with three of the last four records being classic rock from that decade. I'm not complaining about that.

Disc 321 is...KISS (self-titled)

Artist: KISS

Year of Release: 1974

What’s Up With The Cover?: The band introduces themselves to America - in kabuki-style makeup of course - from left to right we have Paul Stanley, Peter Criss, Gene Simmons, and Ace Frehley. Naturally, Gene is alone in hamming it up for the photo shoot, but what I noticed in this picture was just how feminine Ace looks in this picture. I think it is the hair style, but the star earring and medallion necklace certainly add to the vibe.

Overall, I like this cover; although it's simple, it has a very low budget, garage band feel to it that KISS covers never really have again after this.

How I Came To Know It: As this is my 8th KISS review, this story is getting pretty old. I've known KISS since I was five years old. I never had this album as a kid, but knew the majority of the songs from my brother's copy of the much more famous "KISS Alive" record. They didn't resonate back then like my two favourite records (which I will talk about when I roll it) so I was glad to get properly reaquainted with their self-titled debut when it was reissued in remastered format back in the late nineties.

How It Stacks Up: I'm glad to roll this record only three albums after reviewing "Dressed To Kill", as these two are the best of KISS' early records. I left room for "Dressed To Kill" to beat this one out by saying I liked it "3rd or 4th best", but having heard their self-titled debut, I think it is marginally better. So I'll formally put KISS self-titled alone in 3rd, and drop "Dressed To Kill" to 4th.

Rating: 4 stars.

KISS' debut is a classic rock album by any reasonable measurement. The riffs are rock-steady, the band plays as tight as they ever will (Peter and Ace both being at the top of their game, and not addled by the substance abuse that would come later). Gene Simmons at this earliest stage of the band's career seems genuinely focused on the music. His vocals and playing are great, and the songs he writes for the record feature some of his best stuff (including "Nothin' To Lose" and "Deuce", although the latter really ascends to another level because of Frehley's inspired guitar playing).

As ever, KISS likes to sing about what they know; beautiful girls and living the rock n' roll dream. Something about writing and recording these songs before they ever achieve stardom makes the accomplishment so much better. At the same time, it gives the songs a bit of a gritty edge they never recapture on later records. This down n' dirty feel is particularly noticeable on tracks like "Cold Gin", an Ace Frehley offering which gets into alcohol abuse from the perspective of a couple who is only held together by the prospect of getting drunk:

"It's time to leave and get another quart
Around the corner at the liquor store
Haha the cheapest stuff is all I need
To get me back on my feet again.

"Ooh, it's cold gin time again
You know it'll always win
It's cold gin time again
You know it's the only thing
That keeps us together."

I like this section because it willingly rejects KISS' gods of rock imagery, to acknowledge the sad edge to alcohol abuse. Frehley's bad habits are revealed early, and given what happens to the band later on, it had me thinking beyond the surface, as though the song is subversively about the band's internal relationship, with partiers Frehley and Criss increasingly at odds with the relatively straight-laced Stanley and the teetotalling Simmons.

At the same time as they are playing imperfectly with their images as rock superstars to great effect, the band also showcases another side of themselves as rock and roll traditionalists, with a remake of the 1959 Bobby Rydell hit "Kissin' Time". They would go on to do another great cover on 1977's "Love Gun" with "Then She Kissed Me", but I'll talk about that when I roll it.

I think there is a strong argument to be made that KISS' debut album is their greatest achievement. It shows a band that knows exactly where they are going, but with a raw rock edge still on their music by virtue of their not having arrived yet. It is as heavy as anything they would later record, and Frehley's guitar was never better than on classics like "Strutter", "Cold Gin", "Deuce" and even the groove-rock instrumental "Love Theme From KISS".

If I hold out for a couple albums to top it (and I do), it is more a favouritism born of nostalgia, than any critical consideration. But hey, it is my blog; if you want your own version of nostalgia, feel free to write your own.

A final note on the KISS remasters, which are among the best out there, and worth the investment even if you already have the original releases. They aren't just louder like a lot of remasters, nor has someone come along post-recording and messed up the mix. Instead they just sound crisper, more full and more distinct, but otherwise exactly as they felt the first time you spun them on your turntables back in the 1970s.

KISS has even avoided adding a bunch of extra track filler, keeping tight little albums like their debut short, sweet, and leaving you wanting more. Other artists currently remastering your early work, take not on how it can be done properly.

Best tracks: Strutter, Firehouse, Cold Gin, Deuce, Love Theme From KISS, Black Diamond

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