Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Throughout his career, Alice Cooper has made a habit of confounding the expectations of fans & critics by rarely repeating himself, especially on successive records. One exception, however, took place when he followed up the brilliant Brutal Planet (which I discussed, and raved about, in my previous post) with its thematic successor, Dragontown (2001). Bob Marlette returned as producer along with guitarist Ryan Roxie, and one notable addition is drummer Kenny Aronoff, best known for his work with John Mellencamp in the ‘80s & ‘90s (and a personal inspiration for my own drumming). Even though this album functions as a sequel, it’s not as dark, ominous & oppressive as Brutal Planet. “Dragontown” has a cool pre-chorus (“Come on, I’ve got something to show you”) that leads into a melodic chorus (“We can dig you a hole deep in the ground, burn your soul down in Dragontown”), and features references to the “wicked young man” and “family of bones” from the previous album. “Fantasy Man” is a crunchy, power-pop-metal tune that reminds me of Stone Temple Pilots (like numerous Alice songs from this era). I like how the title is a misnomer, as he’s “not your fantasy man” and “Hey hey, I ain’t gonna change, hey hey don’t you love it this way?” “Disgraceland” is a tasteless but hilarious rockabilly song about the dark side…and sad demise…of Elvis Presley, with Alice singing in a faux-Elvis voice. As a huge Elvis fan I should be offended, but it’s too funny to let it bother me and I assume Alice’s tongue was planted firmly in cheek on this one.
“Sister Sara” has a midtempo chunky rhythm and a great story about a disgraced nun. The music is very heavy & a bit one-dimensional, and I don’t really like the mostly spoken verses, but the quieter pre-chorus with female vocals and the killer lyrics make it worth repeated listens. “Every Woman Has A Name” is a tender ballad with strings; another example of female solidarity & empowerment in a similar vein to earlier songs “Only Women Bleed” & “Take It Like A Woman.” I could imagine this being turned into a great country ballad. The album closes with two strong songs. “It’s Much Too Late” is brighter than much of what came before it; a pop-rock tune written from the perspective of a “nice guy with good intentions” who ends up in Hell. I like that irony as well as the Beatle-y “la la la” backing vocals. “The Sentinel” is dark & raunchy, and seems to be about suicide bombers. It’s interesting to note that it was recorded before September 11 of that year, since this is the kind of song you would expect on a post-9/11 release.
When I bought this album I was fortunate to find a copy of the 2-CD “Special Edition” that includes one new track, two live performances & one decent if forgettable remix. The highlight of the bonus disc is a song I loved the first time I heard it: “Can’t Sleep, Clowns Will Eat Me.” Based on a quote (I assume) from Bart Simpson, it’s funny & fun with a riff that recalls The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.” How can you not love a song with this lyrical refrain: “And if you think this isn’t real, I’ll show you wounds that never heal, to them I’m just a happy meal”? Based on reviews I’ve read, a lot of fans seem to prefer Dragontown over Brutal Planet, but I think this album…like most sequels…doesn’t quite reach the heights of the original. That’s a minor criticism, as I like the majority of the songs and even the ones I didn’t mention are worth checking out at least once.
With the release of The Eyes Of Alice Cooper (2003), I went from being a casual fan with a couple of individual albums & the Life And Crimes box set to someone who needed to hear everything in the Alice Cooper catalog. That’s how good the reviews were at the time, and how much this album lived up to the hype. Completely switching gears from the various strains of metal he had become known for in recent years, Alice turned to producer Mudrock (aka Andrew Murdoch), best known for his work with modern rock bands Godsmack & Avenged Sevenfold (two bands I know next to nothing about) to help deliver a collection of thirteen short garage rock and power-pop songs that are still as instantly enjoyable as they were the first time I played them. The lineup this time includes guitarists Eric Dover & Ryan Roxie (who co-wrote most of the record), bassist Chuck Garric & drummer Eric Singer. “What Do You Want From Me?” is a bright splashy rocker with a greasy/sleazy glam rock vibe. I love the alternating vocals in the chorus. “Between High School & Old School” is a return to the Alice Cooper Band’s early-‘70s heyday, like an updated “School’s Out” for an aging…but still vital…rock star. Like in the old days, he’s a sneering outsider delivering great lines like, “Nobody wants me hangin’ ‘round, unless it’s from a tree in the middle of town.”
[Alice Cooper – “Between High School & Old School”]
“Man Of The Year” has tongue-in-cheek lyrics set to a Green Day-esque chugging punk-pop groove. I love the sunny, harmony-laden chorus, and it’s interesting how the last section includes references to depression & suicide yet somehow finds a positive spin. “Novocaine” is a rootsy rocker that reminds me of Steve Earle. It’s loose, slightly ragged and very catchy & bright, especially the chorus (“’Cause when you touch me…hold me…kiss me, I don’t feel anything”). Things slow down for the heartfelt jazzy ballad, “Be With You Awhile,” where Alice just wants to be the right man for his woman. “Detroit City,” featuring MC5’s Wayne Kramer on guitar, is his homage to the titular city with references to MC5, Iggy Pop, Ted Nugent & Bob Seger, and humorous nods to Detroit “kids” like Kid Rock, Eminem & Insane Clown Posse. It’s a cool sleazy rocker with great guitar interplay shifting between the left & right channels. “This House Is Haunted” returns to the sparse, creepy feel of much of Welcome To My Nightmare, with Alice singing from the perspective of a kid who’s been tormented all his life (Steven perhaps?). Musically this one’s really interesting, with raging guitars, theremin and clarinet in the mix. “Love Should Never Feel Like This” is Cheap Trick-esque power-pop. It’s not an amazing song but it is insanely catchy, and I love the organ sound. “The Song That Didn’t Rhyme” is a self-referencing tune about mediocre songwriting (“the melody blows in a key that no one can find, the lyrics don’t flow but I can’t get it out of my mind”) that even features an offbeat drum fill to intentionally match the lyrics. I really can’t speak highly enough about The Eyes Of Alice Cooper, as I think any fan of the Alice Cooper Band’s ‘70s albums with an open mind for modern production would love the songs & performances. Even now that I’ve gotten to know those early albums extremely well, I still feel this record stands proud among those acknowledged classics.
My initial reaction to Dirty Diamonds (2005) at the time was, “it’s very good but not in the same league as The Eyes Of…” That was eight years ago and now, after spending a lot more time with it this past week, I regard it nearly as highly as its predecessor. Album opener “Woman Of Mass Distraction” is kind of a throwaway; an AC/DC-type hard rocker with big riffs & pounding drums that could also be a Gene Simmons-sung Kiss song. Things immediately pick up with “Perfect,” a T. Rex-ish glam rock stomper with a slinky groove, great hooks & strong clean vocals addressed to all those untalented wannabe pop stars (“She’s perfect until the lights go on, and then it all goes wrong…”). “Dirty Diamonds” combines the drama of a spy film soundtrack (especially the flute & trumpet intro and the mid-song instrumental section) with a pulsing rock song. The chorus is its greatest asset: “Dirty diamonds, blood soaked money in your shakin’ fist…stone cold killers & you’re on their list.” “The Saga Of Jesse Jane” is a hilarious but serious-sounding quasi-country ballad with Alice singing, in a deep mocking voice, the story of a cross-dressing criminal. Lyrically it recalls Monty Python’s “Lumberjack Song” while the music had me thinking of off-kilter ‘80s band Wall Of Voodoo.
“Sunset Babies (All Got Rabies)” is a raunchy rocker with a punk energy & swagger and a huge harmony-filled chorus, like a less glossy version of his hair metal years.
“Pretty Ballerina” is a lovely, lilting pastoral tune with hints of ‘60s recordings by Love, The Zombies & The Moody Blues and vocals on the sweeter side of John Lennon (think “#9 Dream”). I love the slowly insistent groove in “Run Down The Devil,” which features tight harmonies & a stellar chorus. It’s repetitive in a good way. “Steal That Car” isn’t a major song but it’s a blast of fun with a killer organ-infused chorus (“Everybody knows, I’m gonna steal that car”). “Six Hours” is instantly memorable with that weeping lead guitar, and the slow waltz tempo sets it apart from the rest of the album. “Your Own Worst Enemy” is the shortest track at just 2:15, with tambourine hits pepping up this steady, Smithereens style rocker. I especially like the amusing lyrics (“Your stock went south & your girlfriend is gay, your dog ate your cat and that was your good day”). It’s followed by album closer “Zombie Dance,” a sparser, bass-driven tune with guitars providing the accents and Alice’s harmonica adding a slightly bluesy dimension. Peggi Blu & Edna Wright add soaring blues/gospel vocals; the song could’ve used even more of them. There’s also a bonus track called “Stand” that features rapper Xzibit. It has a repetitive programmed groove with a good melodic hook (“If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything”) but it’s not a song I’ll revisit frequently. All in all I was pleasantly surprised by how much more I enjoyed Dirty Diamonds this time around. It quickly became a new favorite.
I’m glad I finally got to hear the audio disc that came with the Live At Montreux 2005 (2006) DVD, as I considered picking it up a number of times but never made the purchase. In fact, I hadn’t heard any Alice Cooper live releases until I began this series. The CD only has 19 songs compared to 28 on the DVD, but over the course of those tracks Alice & the band cover a lot of ground: 7 songs come from four Alice Cooper Band albums while the other 12 songs span 9 solo albums. “I Never Cry” is the only ballad, performed in an “unplugged” setting, while the rest of the set emphasizes the more upbeat, rock & roll side of Alice. While there are no particular standouts, overall it’s an excellent show by a lineup that consists of guitarists Ryan Roxie & Damon Johnson, bassist Chuck Garric and drummer Eric Singer. It’s hard to compare this to previous live albums, other than to say that Alice is in fine voice and the set list is well chosen. Considering he was only a few years shy of 60 when this show was recorded, it’s pretty impressive to hear him still at the peak of his powers. Not many of his contemporaries could make that claim.
I’ve already begun listening to his two most recent albums. I’ll be giving those discs a number of spins this week, along with two more live releases, before I write my final post on the Alice Cooper catalog. Stay tuned, and as always please share your thoughts on the albums discussed here in the Comments section. Thank you.