Thursday, August 16, 2012

CD Odyssey Disc 429: Alice Cooper

In my last review I bemoaned that Gene Simmons didn’t descend into the depths of the human psyche for the sake of his art.  So naturally the dice gods rewarded me with someone who did.

Disc 429 is…Killer
Artist: Alice Cooper

Year of Release: 1971

What’s up with the Cover?  It’s a snake, and some bad handwriting.  Alice loves snakes – they also feature on the cover of 1986’s “Constrictor”, 1991’s “Hey Stoopid” the British import cover for 2000’s “Brutal Planet” and if you count just the skin, 1973’s “Billion Dollar Babies”.

How I Came To Know It: I first fell in love with a lot of these songs as a kid listening to my brother’s greatest hits record.  I bought “Killer” on CD in about 1995, when I found it ridiculously cheap at the short-lived used section of A&B Sound.  I think they were trying to undercut Lyle’s Place for business, but it was ultimately A&B Sound that went out of business, not Lyle’s.  Score one for local business.

How It Stacks Up:  I have all twenty-six of Alice Cooper’s studio albums.  “Killer” is one of the best.  I think I’m going to put it 4th or 5th, in a statistical tie with the very different, but also brilliant “Welcome to My Nightmare.”

Rating:  4 stars (close to 5 - corrected)

Certain albums are beloved by fans and critics alike, and “Killer” is one of those albums for Alice Cooper.  Few casual fans own this record, which is a great pity, because it is a hell of a fine rock album.

It came out in 1971, following only ten months after his masterpiece “Love it to Death,” and built on that record’s well balanced combination of hard seventies shock rock, psychedelic sixties-inspired organ, and progressive opuses about a host of troubling topics.

The album screeches to a start with a guitar shriek that is reminiscent car breaks applied at high speed, as the band launches into “Under My Wheels.”  Not content with the subtle, Alice proceeds to gleefully sing about running someone over.  Starting as half rock song, half-spastic threat, it then morphs into big-band like trumpets.  Then it combines all three elements, with a bit of in tune yelling from master vocalist Cooper.  It does all of this craziness in just under three minutes.

From here we’re treated to the lascivious “Be My Lover” a song that takes more than a hint of sexual tension, and turns it into a song about identity crisis.  This is one of my favourite songs and to this day the best expression of the struggle with the ‘real’ life of Vincent Furnier, and the psychopathic front man that he created in Alice Cooper.  As ‘Alice’ sings to his potential date:

“I told her that I came from Detroit City
And I played guitar in a long-haired rock and roll band.
She asked me why the singer’s name was Alice
I said 'listen, babe, you really wouldn’t understand.'”

Musically the sweet, sweet guitar riff in this song connects to a series of brilliant, off-kilter drum rolls, plus Alice’s lyrics and finally a slowed tempo that is entirely designed to sound like the over-sexualized end of burlesque show.

How will such a story end?  Remember, this is Alice Cooper we’re talking about, so when I tell you it cuts out abruptly into the prog masterpiece “Halo of Flies,” a song about Satan himself (I think), we shouldn’t be at all surprised.

Halo of Flies” is one of those perfectly constructed songs.  It changes its tune constantly, now featuring guitar, now organ, now drum, now bass, and never feeling like it is just giving the instruments their turn at a solo, like the ending of a bad concert would do.  At one point, Cooper even works in a riff from the Sound of Music's “These are a Few of My Favourite Things.”  What’s more, when it ends over eight minutes later you realize the band has made it all work, at times without you even noticing.

To round off Side One we have “Desperado” a song about a vicious gunfighter in the old west, confronting his own disturbed morality even as he revels in it.  The song features half the verses sung in in a slow, western style deep pitch, and half in a high, fast rock rasp.  It epitomizes the internal and external qualities of an interesting, but morally suspect individual.  Just the way Furnier imagines the Alice Cooper character, but only brought fully to life with the genius of the playing of his band mates (remember this is still when ‘Alice Cooper’ referred to both the lead singer and the band as a whole).  Every line of this song is fantastic, but today this section appeals:

I wear lace and I wear black leather
My hands are lightning upon my gun
My shots are clean and my shots are final
My shots are deadly and when it’s done

You’re as stiff as my smoking barrel
You’re as dead as a desert night
You’re a notch and I’m a legend
You’re at peace and I must hide.”

When Cooper sings these lines, I feel like the killer in the song is not only hiding physically from his crimes, but mentally rebelling against the very nature of what he’s become.  His own perverse performance is summed up in the song’s final two lines:

I’m a killer, I’m a clown
I’m a priestess gone to town.”

All these great songs and it is only Side One.  Side Two features more of the same, but the highlight is “Dead Babies.”  If the title track to “Billion Dollar Babies” is an indictment of children growing up surrounded by empty materialism, then “Dead Babies” is an indictment of parenting so bad that the kids don’t even make it out of infancy.

Starting with a discordant bass lick, the song slowly builds from there, Cooper’s voice a mournful half-moan as he enumerates the perils of an open bottle of aspirin, with Daddy absent in Texas and Mommy frittering away her nights at the local pub, knocking them back unawares.

I was reading an article about Cooper from 2008, and over twenty-five years later, “Dead Babies” was still eliciting outrage in the community.  Admittedly I saw Cooper’s stage show that year, and it was more than a little graphic during this song.  Although mostly old degenerate rockers like me filled the seats, here and there I spied some shockingly young children.  As the song and accompanying bloody visuals played across their faces, I wondered if their parents were aware of the irony of the situation.  I’m sure Alice did.

Alice Cooper is often thought of as nothing more than the founder of shock theatre in rock concerts.  Yes, he pioneered the genre (no Gene, it wasn’t you) and yes over the years he’s remained the master of it, but albums like “Killer” remind me that he is a lot more than that.  His music is thoughtful, dynamic and – particularly when accompanied by the full Alice Cooper Band – played with a grotesque brilliance.

Yes, I love Alice Cooper, but I’d like to think I’m fair and honest when I review him.  So far, I’ve reviewed fifteen previous albums of his, and I’ve assigned two stars five times, three or four stars four times each and the coveted five stars only twice.  This album came very close to being the third.

Best tracks:  Be My Lover, Halo of Flies, Desperado, Dead Babies


Gord Webster said...

Not to nitpick, but at the very end of the article, you said this album came very close to being the third to get 5 stars, but earlier in this same article you did give it 5 stars..

Did I read that wrong?

Logan said...

That was my mistake - should read 4 stars throughout (I waffled back and forth. I have now fixed that, and also corrected where "These are a Few of my Favourite Things" - it was the Sound of Music, not Christmas. Good catch, Gord - Logan