Two decades ago, new albums from Alice Cooper, Ricky Martin, Ron Sexsmith and others were spinning away in my portable CD player. Here’s what I had to say about them back then (with some minor editing):
The Life And Crimes Of Alice Cooper
Welcome to his nightmare.
Sure, these days he endorses putters and hangs with Pat Boone. But not long ago, Alice Cooper was the original Antichrist Superstar. Decades before Marilyn Manson was a gleam in Satan’s eye, Alice was the most reviled performer around — ground zero for the shock-rock antics we take for granted today. Without him, there’d be no Marilyn, no Kiss, no Rob Zombie, no Trent Reznor.
Back then, he was called every name in the book: Sick, perverted, disgusting. Even today, classy is not a word you’d normally associate with Alice. But that’s the only way to describe The Life And Crimes Of Alice Cooper, a top-notch, four-CD collection that serves as the ultimate overview of Cooper’s career. With 81 songs and five hours of music, Life And Crimes is certainly the ultimate greatest-hits set. You name it, it’s here, from crucial ’70s fare like I’m Eighteen, Elected, School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies to disco-era ballads such as Only Women Bleed, You And Me and I Never Cry, and even late-period tracks like Poison and Teenage Frankenstein. But once you crack open the cool cover — a 3D lid with Alice peering through an asylum door — you’ll see hits are just the tip of the iceberg. Life And Crimes also contains:
• Nearly two dozen rare or unreleased tracks spanning Alice’s career — demos, soundtrack cuts, cool covers, collaborations with Rob Zombie, Aerosmith and Guns N’ Roses and even the first two singles he recorded with his teenage band of Yardbirds wannabes, The Spiders (who evolved into the original Cooper band).
• An 82-page book packed with cool photos, a painstakingly researched biography, and tributes from a whole roster of rockers including David Cassidy, Johnny Rotten and pretty much everyone between.
• A complete discography with original album cover art, session details and track-by-track reminiscences from former bandmates Neal Smith, Michael Bruce, Dennis Dunaway and plenty more. (If you think that’s magnanimous, check this out: Alice even includes a track from the Battle Axe album the guys recorded without him.)
• Loads of fun Alice facts. The name of the snake on the Killer album? Kachina — it belonged to drummer Smith. The inspiration for the chorus of School’s Out? Ravel’s Bolero. The song on which Alice is imitating Jim Morrison? Desperado.
It should be enough to please every Alice fan from the hardcore collector to the kid who just heard Under My Wheels. Of course, not everyone will get every favourite cut (I can already hear my Alice-worshipping pal dismissing it as worthless for failing to include Public Animal No. 9. And I would have loved more of his early ’80s garage-rock covers like Talk Talk and 7+7=?). But for every missing track, there’s an overlooked gem like the hilarious I Love America or the rare raveup For Britain Only. All box sets should be this incomplete.
Bottom line: I think you’re gonna like it.
You might as well get used to it — for the summer of 1999, you’ll be listening to Livin’ La Vida Loca whether you like it or not. And that’s just fine by me. For my money, this tropical cocktail of spicy salsa, supercharged ska and cool twangabilly is four minutes of pop perfection — the most addictive song since MmmBop. Too bad the rest of this ex-Menudo pretty boy’s debut doesn’t keep up. Sure, it has its moments — notably the funky strut of Shake Your Bon-Bon and a duet with Madonna — but nothing comes close to Vida Loca’s lightning in a bottle. Oh Ricky, what a pity!
In a musical world full of arched eyebrows and wry smirks, irony-free Canuck Ron Sexsmith is one of a dying breed — the earnest, honest-to-goodness songwriter. And an increasingly capable and sophisticated one; this third album finds him branching out into Al Green piano-soul, imagining the song Neil Young might have written if he played with The Byrds and The Band, taking the Squirrel Nut Zippers on a raft down the Mississippi and hanging out with Paul McCartney at Bruce Springsteen’s Jersey Shore haunts. Subtly beautiful, quietly evocative and sincere, Whereabouts proves that sometimes, they still do write ’em like they used to.
Ryde Or Die Vol. 1
Thug Mentality 1999
I used to roll my eyes at those who said all rap sounds the same. But frankly, lately even I’m having trouble telling the playas from the played. These two self-indulgent discs are shining proof of the two problems hampering hip-hop these days. Problem 1: Too many guest vocals. Example: Ruff Ryders. Not only does this skillful crew led by DMX have nearly a dozen members, but Ryde Or Die Vol. 1 also features Jay-Z, Big Pun, Ma$e, Jermaine Dupri and so on — most of whom had albums out recently and appeared on each other’s discs. At this rate, soon the entire genre will be one big crew. Problem 2: Too many double CDs. Example: Bone Thugs-N-Harmony top dog Krayzie Bone, who deadens the impact of his menacing, gangsta-gospel style by dragging us through 38 tracks over 134 minutes on his solo debut. I didn’t realize the 1999 in the title referred to the year it would take to listen to this. This is rhyme and punishment. Word.
Every Day Is A New Day
A studio whiz who knew someone who worked on a Diana Ross album once told me she had almost nothing to do with it — others selected, arranged and recorded the songs, and she didn’t even hear them until she showed up to sing over the guide vocals. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m tempted to buy it after sitting through the abysmal Every Day Is A New Day, an hour’s worth of insipid, Diane Warren-style ballads as invigorating as a glass of warm milk. Even Miss Ross barely seems awake, turning in vocals so disinterested she could have phoned them in from the back seat of her limo. Hey, who knows — maybe she did.
A Day In The Life
Who’s your daddy? That’s right; Eric Benét is your daddy. And he wants you to come to papa. Daddy knows what you need, baby. First he’s gonna lay down some slinky, old-school funky grooves. Then he’s gonna pour his cafe-au-lait voice right in your ear and whisper sweet seductions like “hike up that skirt and show me just where I belong.” And you know, he’s so smooth that he can even turn songs by Toto (Georgy Porgy) and Kansas (Dust In The Wind) into make-out music. So come on, baby — you know you want to.
Andre Williams & The Sadies
Legendary, lascivious lunatic Andre Williams — if you haven’t heard him, imagine Screamin’ Jay Hawkins on a three-day bender — trades his R&B shouter cap for a C&W Stetson on Red Dirt. And he isn’t talking through his hat. Teaming with Toronto spaghetti-surfers The Sadies, Williams kicks holy hell out of both kinds of music — country AND western — with a set of typically deranged originals (My Sister Stole My Woman) and equally twisted country classics (Johnny Paycheck’s Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone To Kill). Trust me, nobody has ever been more qualified to ask, “You think I’m psycho, don’t you mama?”
German juke-joint jezebels KMFDM claim they disbanded back in January. Then again, they also claim to have since reformed as MDFMK. (Now is the time on Sprockets when we stage a publicity stunt, no?) Whatever. All I know is that as a swan song, Adios is a familiar one — 50 minutes of the usual Teutonic boom by the numbers, down to the guitar-glam orchestration, synthetic leather-boy strut and cool erotic disco thump. For all but the loyal fans, most of these uninspired songs will seem more like a kiss-off than a kiss goodbye.
Black Star Liner
Bengali Bantam Youth Experience
Gee, here’s something new: A British band being hailed as “the future of rock ’n’ roll.” (By my count, Britain’s music scene now has more futures than your average Philip K. Dick novel.) Still, there’s no denying Black Star Liner are ahead of their time. Like Talvin Singh and Cornershop, this Leeds trio lace their electro-pop with the tabla, sitar and keening voices of Indian music. But they don’t stop there; BSL’s everything-and-the-Krishna-in-sync approach also factors robotic Kraftwerk vocals, surf-twang guitar and throbbing reggae grooves into their head-trip banghra. This dub narcotic sound system may not be the future, but BSL should have one.
I bet the spiky-heads in this dreadful, derivative post-grunge outfit just thought the name Simon Says was, like, cool. Well, they were right — but probably not for the reasons they think. I like the handle because it pretty much sums up the whole dreary modern rock genre — a bunch of kids all doing the exact same thing while following somebody else’s lead. Simon Says, put a big guitar riff here; Simon Says, add a funky drum track here; Simon Says, try to sound like you’re from Seattle. Now write a unique song. Oops, not so fast — I didn’t say Simon Says. Simon Says, please go away.
Think of the great roots-rock groups — from The Band to The Blasters, Texas Tornadoes to Los Lobos. Now add another name to that list: North Carolina’s Backsliders. Like those other acts, their sound is firmly anchored in decades of traditional Americana, from Hank Williams’ honky-tonk and Bill Monroe’s high-lonesome harmonies to the Flying Burritos’ torchy twang. On this superlative second album, singer/songwriter Chip Robinson and co. skillfully combine these elements and more to produce thoughtful, earthy tales that recall John Hiatt’s finest moments. And hey, you’ve gotta love a band that can name-check the Flamin’ Groovies, Abe Lincoln and Brand New Cadillac — all in the same tune.
The Definitive Collection
What with Burt Bacharach’s big comeback and all, it didn’t exactly take a call to the Psychic Friends Network to predict this collection from Warwick, who voiced most of Burt and partner Hal David’s hits in the ’60s — Anyone Who Had A Heart, Walk On By, I Say A Little Prayer, Do You Know The Way To San Jose, I’ll Never Fall In Love Again and more. All are included here, mastered from the original tapes to bring out every chirpy horn and sweet string. You also get post-Burt hits like Then Came You and Heartbreaker, but frankly, they seem like filler after the perfection of Burt and Hal. Sorry, Dionne, but I have to say it — that’s what friends are for.
Family Of God
We Are The World
For those eagerly awaiting a gospel version of the classic famine fund-raiser, sorry to bum you out. Family Of God ain’t no Christian act; they’re a pair of New York musical pranksters — Echo & The Bunnymen sideman Adam Peters and clothing store owner Chris Brick. And this We Are The World ain’t no pop pap. It’s an hour of what they call “mystic disco;” in other words, a hodge-podge of freaky sounds — twangy guitars, moody psychedelia, organ rebop, you name it — collected into off-centre tunes with titles like Theme From The Bible and The Centre For The Dull. This sucker, however, is anything but dull. Baby, baby, it’s a wild world.
Destroy All Human Life
If you think about it, the original folk singers — we’re talking back in the ’20s and ’30s here — were also the original punks. Dirt-poor, uneducated outsiders, rebelling against the world with just a guitar and some angry words. Fast-forward to 1999 and the double-entendre handled Country Teasers, a British quartet of redneck balladeers who infuse their lo-fi folk blues with all the fear and loathing of a classic murder ballad. Ragged and frayed as an overused noose, these sloppy backwoods dirges are peppered with more provocative invective than a David Duke speech, delivered in vocals that vary from a beaten whimper to a miserable howl. Misanthropy has never sounded better — we mean it, man.
There aren’t many folks who can out-mope Elliot Smith, but Chicago troubadour Michael Krassner is one of them. On his self-titled debut, Krassner makes ol’ Mr. Misery seem positively giddy as he spins country-folk laments about lost loves and how “everlasting miseries follow me around.” Oddly enough, Krassner’s bittersweet symphonies won’t leave you so lonesome you could cry. Instead, his Lennonesque simplicity and ear for melody invest these loose-limbed tunes with a fragile beauty and sparse elegance that makes them as gently relaxing as a warm, late-night breeze.
Medeski, Martin & Wood
Combustication Remix EP
Acid jazz funkateers MM&W give a whole new meaning to playing with fire by letting some remix masters tinker with the smouldering grooves from their breakthrough Combustication album. And the results smoke just like the originals did — the trio’s fat, funky organ vibe provides the perfect foundation for freaks to freestyle over. Like Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda, who creates a P-Funk space jam with the help of boyfriend Sean Lennon. Or high priest of sonic manipulation Bill Laswell, whose 10-minute, multipart dreamscape Satan’s Church Of Hypnotized Logic will leave you hypnotized.
Charlie Hunter / Leon Parker
At first blush, you’ll swear this should be called Trio. But no, all that string action — thick jazz chords, lickety-split solos, walking bass lines — is coming from guitar whiz Charlie Hunter, whose eight-string axe and mind-boggling virtuosity enable him to swing like an entire ensemble. And Charlie’s magic powers have seldom been better showcased than on this 10-track outing, backed only by capable drummer Leon Parker. But this is no show-offy guitarist ego trip. Hunter’s delicate, fluid approach never overpowers the groove and always goes for quality over quantity — even when his guitar sounds like a funky jam between an organ and a bass. Trio? Better make that Quartet.