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Catching up on a few things
It’s Alice Cooper season.
OK, sure, every season is Alice Cooper season. But there is something about hearing “School’s Out” – the pathfinding, brilliantly episodic rock single from 1972 – in June, when young hearts are fluttering with the prospect of school actually finally being out. Cue up and bear witness: The song’s a thrill ride top to bottom. And the singer? It just never gets old hearing him bellow that immortal line “Well we got no class….and we got no principles.” (Or was it principals?).
This week Warner Brothers is dropping remastered and significantly expanded versions of two essential Alice Cooper titles, Killer (1971) and School’s Out (1972), both multi-platinum successes produced by Bob Ezrin. Each contains alternate studio attempts and rarities – the School’s Out sessions included an early trip through “Elected,” which became part of Billion Dollar Babies. Both Deluxe editions feature packaging extras that echo the original releases – School’s Out brings back the lace panties that caused a stir on release. Something about them being flammable?
And, more significantly, each offers thrilling live performances featuring the “classic” lineup -- singer Alice Cooper, lead guitarist Glen Buxton, rhythm guitarist/keyboardist Michael Bruce, bassist Dennis Dunaway, and drummer Neal Smith. Killer is augmented with audio from an April 1972 show at Mar Y Sol Pop Festival in Puerto Rico, while the deluxe School’s Out features a show from May of the same year, weeks before the band would enter the studio to record School’s Out.
Among the key tracks: Multiple versions of “Halo of Flies” that show how precise this band could be rattling off entertainingly tricky prog-rock intricacies; a similarly epic version of “Gutter Cat vs. The Jets,” which draws inspiration (and interpolates lyrics) from West Side Story; delirious treatments of singles like “Under My Wheels” and “Be My Lover” that are saturated with a playful irreverence – and flatout sloppiness -- that now seems almost exotic.
Open Question for Recording Engineers and Producers
Last week brought news of yet another major John Coltrane vault discovery: On July 14, Impulse! will release Evenings at the Village Gate, drawn from the saxophonist’s extended 1961 residency at the club. It features pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Reggie Workman, drummer Elvin Jones and saxophonist Eric Dolphy exploring cornerstones of Coltrane’s repertoire like “Impressions” (the teaser track), “Greensleeves,” and “My Favorite Things.”
Discovered in the holdings of the New York Public Library, Evenings represents the only live account of Coltrane’s group at the Village Gate. It contains an extended 23-minute version of “Africa” that is believed to be the only non-studio recording of the tune, and fills in an important historical gap by chronicling the early days of the collaboration between Coltrane and Dolphy – an association that lasted for several years and is documented on the studio works Ole Coltrane, Africa/Brass, Live! at the Village Vanguard and Impressions.
The playing is superheated, as you’d expect. And the recording is surprisingly crisp, given its age; both horn players are well represented. But there is one weak element: The muddy low end. We don’t hear nearly enough Workman, and what is there lacks definition – a problem on tunes like “Impressions,” where the harmony is mostly static.
This isn’t an isolated case. Many live recordings from the ‘60s – titles released at the time and recent discoveries like this one -- are similar. My question for engineers and producers: Why? Where does the bass go? Is it simply a technology thing? Was there a different approach to capture and sound processing of the low end in those days? Or are our digital ears accustomed to hearing (and feeling) bass in a certain way?
My favorite album of the week: A startling, music-affirming, gently detailed quartet work called Les Egares (Those Who Stray) featuring Malian kora master Ballake Sissoko and three French players from diverse stylistic backgrounds — improvising cellist Vincent Segal, accordion virtuoso Vincent Peirani and French soprano saxophonist Émile Parisien. The quartet is built around two existing duos -- two virtuoso duos (Sissoko-Segal and Peirani-Parisien), who for years have worked to explore sounds that transcend region and genre.
This is quiet, breathy music in which melodies unfold slowly and are framed by graceful and wonderfully open accompaniments — sometimes arpeggios from the kora, sometimes low brooding drones from accordion. When we talk about classical music having a moment of hotness, it’s usually about bigness, full orchestras at peak sound. Though there’s plenty of improvisation, this is built on the dynamics of chamber groups: We hear each musician thinking, breathing and composing in the moment — and then savoring the measured and beautiful reactions of the others. Highly recommended.