Monday, October 10, 2011

Review: Alice Cooper's "Welcome 2 My Nightmare"

When I first heard that Alice Cooper's new album was going to be called Welcome 2 My Nightmare, I thought, "oh no, not a sequel album!". If you really think about it, how many sequel albums are any good, or, for that matter, well known? One that might come close is probably Kiss Alive II, but calling that a "sequel" is a bit of a stretch. I suppose that Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell II actually was successful, back in '93, but that's the exception, not the rule. (Operation: Mindcrime II, anyone?)

Well, this is Alice, so I figured I'd cut him some slack, even though I knew full-well that there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell that "2" could hold a candle to the original 1975 album, and I decided that I would try really hard not to view the new album through that filter. The original is a masterwork of both Alice and producer/songwriter Bob Ezrin, who has produced some huge albums over the decades (Kiss' Destroyer, Pink Floyd's The Wall, Lou Reed's Berlin, just to name a few). Bob is back for the new one, and lends his producing and songwriting talents to this effort as well.

Knowing that Ezrin was on board, I felt that this album had a fighting chance of being at least a decent recording, especially when compared to Alice's more recent lackluster efforts like the so-so Dirty Diamonds (2005), the industrial-sounding Dragontown (2001), and the disappointing Along Came a Spider (2008). The other intriguing bit of news regarding this album was that, not only was original Nightmare guitarist Steve Hunter going to be all over this thing, but the original Alice Cooper lineup would be on the album, too. (That's the band called Alice Cooper, minus late co-guitarist Glenn Buxton. Remember: Nightmare was Alice's first solo album.)

The opening of "2" begins in a way familiar to Cooper fans, with the opening piano line from the original Nightmare's "Steven", leading into the first song, "I am Made of You". The first thing one notices about the opening track is the use of a Vocoder effect (often mistakenly thought to be "Auto Tune", though I'm willing to bet it could be used to make this vocal sound). This is the same effect that Cher used on her big hit "Believe" back in 1999. (Come on, I know you know it! We all know it!) The effect gives Alice a very robotic-sounding voice, while accentuating the melody of the vocal line. I wasn't too crazy about the idea, and I think the song would have been better without it, still, at it's crescendo, the song does manage to muster a decently thematic quality, kind of like the opening to blockbuster film.

Next is "Caffeine", the first "rocker" on the disc. It starts off well enough, but quickly stalls-out as a mediocre rocker with a silly-sounding, squeaky-voiced chorus of "caffeine, caffeine/amphetamine/a little speed is all I need..." Supposedly, the protagonist is trying hard not to slip back into the "nightmare", but this is kind of a cheesy way to get the point across. I know that Alice can be cheeky, and to great effect at times, but he's done better.

"The Nightmare Returns" is merely a vignette, but is possibly the only song on "2" that truly captures the feel of the the original album, right down to Alice's creepy little-old-lady voice.

As if Ezrin didn't have time to write and record any nice transitional pieces of music for the spaces between songs (in fact, there are no segues on this album whatsoever), the next song, "A Runaway Train", begins with what's supposed to be a "creepy" train conductor welcoming us aboard the "nightmare express". Please. Are we twelve? The whole thing sounds like some dude cupping his hands over his mouth, in place of modern recording technology. Maybe Bob was off that day. The song has just about every hackneyed rock-train-song cliche you can think of, including the "whoo-whoo" guitar riff. Ugh. The one thing that saves this tune? Vince Gil's guitar playing. You read that correctly: Vince Gil! I guess I've been out of the loop on country music, but the guy is a monster player and does his best heavy metal meets Nashville fast-picking on this number and, for that alone, it's worth a listen.

The next track, "Last Man on Earth", borrows it's main riff from "Some Folks" from the the original Nightmare album, but somehow manages to sound new. The riff is campy by design, and the use of a farty-sounding tuba helps to drive this point home, and is juxtaposed with the dire nature of the lyrics which find the protagonist trying to look on the bright side of being the only person to survive the apocalypse. Though not quite as clever as it could be, the song does feel like a well-formed idea, successfully executed.

"The Congregation" follows next, with a very "School's Out" sounding chorus. Man, I wish old school rockers would stop copying the best ideas of their past for "new" material. We're not all so stuck on past achievements that we need to hear them rehashed to feel young again. That said, the song is decent enough, but Alice has a penchant for putting thinly-veiled born-again Christian lyrics on his albums these days, and I can't stand it. The last thing I need from a "shock-rocker" are lyrics that talk about sin and redemption and suggest a moral path for me, or the fictional characters in Alice's story.

The song "I'll Bite Your Face Off", which is the album's first singe is, by Alice's own admission, an "homage" to the Rolling Stones. If by "homage" he means, rip-off of "Street Fighting Man", I would tend to agree with him. There's not much to hang your hat on with this tune; it's just an average song with overused phrases like "burning bed" and "killing floor" throughout.

"Disco Bloodbath Boogie Fever"? Yeah, okay, I get it: hell is a disco. Hmmm, where have I heard this concept before? Oh, yeah, that's right, on the 1976's followup to Nightmare, a little album called Alice Cooper Goes to Hell! He rehashed his own freakin' joke! Not only that, but "Disco"? I'm sorry, but can someone please check a calendar and tell me what year this is? And, Alice raps on this one! Oh, so many things wrong with this song. Now I'm not stupid; I get that this is supposed to be campy and fun, but I'm not buying it. Good comedy is clever; it doesn't have to scream, "hey everybody, this is comedy, isn't it funny?!" If you want a great example of Alice's sardonic wit, check out "Cold Ethyl", a song about necrophilia from the original Nightmare.

Next up in the hodge-podge of "nightmarish" tunes is "Ghouls Gone Wild", which is basically a hard-rock version of a 1960's surf-rock song. Though Alice is a little behind the times with his take on the "Girls Gone Wild" franchise, he and the band manage to pull off a decent, fresh-sounding jam with a catchy hook. In this case, the campy lyrics work due to the fact that the song just keeps moving along without giving you time to dwell upon their meaning, but the fact is, this would make a good Halloween song.

Given the odd sequencing of the album thus far, I guess it should be no surprise that the next song, "Something to Remember Me By", is the album's only ballad. Ballads are one area in which, for whatever reason, Alice always seems to be able to hit a home run, and this song is no exception. He's probably an old romantic at heart, because the song seems to flow very naturally and the lyrics sound sincere. Though this tune would never be accused of being very original, it doesn't call to mind any of his previous ballads, or those of any other major artist; not an easy accomplishment, by any means.

"When Hell Comes Home"?, Now we're talkin'! I can honestly say I've been waiting for something like this from Alice for many, many years. The theme of the song centers around the protagonist's abusive farther, which is truly creepy, and the accompanying music is the epitome of the classic Alice sound. Why? Because it's the original band doing the writing and playing! Just fantastic. It has that sound. It's such an obvious departure from the rest of the album, it begs the question, why doesn't the original band just get back together and do a full album? This is easily the best song on the album, with a genuinely dark sound that only the original band could create. Alice's vocal delivery is far more sinister on this one and it compliments the slow-dirge riff of guitarist Michael Bruce's melody line, augmented by his surprisingly heavy-sounding doubling of the riff on piano. Even the use of the pitch-shifter on Alice's voice on the chorus hearkens back to the days of "Sick Things" from Billion Dollar Babies (1973). I can't say enough good things about this song, and I wish the whole album was this good, alas...

"What Baby Wants" features pop singer Ke$ha as the "Lady in Red" (which is code for "The Devil"; yup, he's back in hell). Clearly, Alice could not afford Lady Gaga and chose the next-most-edgy female pop-star of the day. Alice had professed his admiration for Gaga in the recent past, and was even photographed with her donning fake blood all over her body, but I don't remember Alice ever mentioning that he liked Ke$ha until after she appeared on his album. This is another thing Alice doesn't need to do: try to stay current by including the likes of Ke$ha on his new album. It might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but that feeling probably wore off before the ink dried on the CD booklets. This collaboration already seems dated to me. I will admit though, the part she plays in the song does add something, and the song isn't half bad, it's just that it sounds like a good pop song for another artist. But hey, I guess I can't blame him for trying.

"I Gotta Get Out of Here" is the last "real" song on the album, summing up all of the previous songs' themes, as if trying to say, "see, there was a theme". Apparently, the theme is this: you do bad things, you die and go to hell. This is overly simplistic, especially when you consider that the protagonist ("Steven") is supposed to be insane, and have an abusive father, but I guess these things land you in hell; either that, or I'm really missing something here, but I don't think so ("what part of dead don't you get?" is repeated over and over in this one). Again, an okay song, but Alice really seems to want to preach salvation and redemption to a rock audience that remembers him for songs like "No More Mister Nice Guy" and "Dead Babies".

"The Underture" wraps up the album, but it is not what I would consider a "real" song, simply because it is Bob Ezrin's masturbatory assemblage of all the orchestral bits from the first Nightmare album. Why was this included, so we'd say "oh yeah, right, this is supposed to be a sequel"? I just don't get it. The album should have ended with the previous song; at least it would have had a "creepy" total number of tunes, instead of 14.

Overall, the album is a really well-produced, so-so effort from Alice and Ezrin. I know they had hoped to recapture the magic they had 36 years ago, but not even Paul McCartney can pull that off any more. I applaud the effort, but I will probably end up just replaying the 3 or 4 songs on this album that I enjoy, and leave the rest out of the iTunes shuffle.

If you want a really good recent album from Alice, I highly recommend 2003's, The Eyes of Alice Cooper, which features some really great songwriting and playing from Alice and his bandmates.

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