Paul Taylor

REVIEW: Winger – The Very Best Of (2001)

WINGER – The Very Best Of (2001 Atlantic/Rhino)

Winger broke up in ’94, but reunited in 2001.  Part of the reunion entailed new music.  Before they finally released a new album (Winger IV), they tested the waters with one new song on The Very Best of Winger.  Yes indeed, you had to buy a “greatest hits” to get the new song.  At least Winger also gave you a Japanese bonus track for your money too.

New tune “On the Inside” was written for Pull (their third album and last before breakup) but recorded for Very Best Of.  It’s a chunky, heavy tune with splashes of anthemic keyboard in the chorus.  It really underlines that Winger could write and play with integrity when they wanted to.  Reb Beach’s solo is unorthodox and outside the box.  “Hell to Pay” is listed as an outtake, but it was actually released as a Japanese bonus track to Pull.  Stuff like this saves collectors for shelling out mucho dinero for a Japanese import.  Good sassy tune, and listen for that scorching outro.

Pull was a record that never got a shot, so it’s OK that the first chunk of tunes are from that album.  It deserved a second chance.  These are standout songs:  “Blind Revolution Mad” smokes white hot, and with depth.  “Down Incognito” has a bright, memorable chorus contrasted with groovy verses.  90s-style riffing worked perfectly on the track “Junkyard Dog”, a seven-minute thrill ride through different textures.  Winger were not playing it simple.  Even their ballads from that era have more heft.  “Spell I’m Under” has edge under those layered melodies.  Few songs are as starkly lovely as “Who’s the One”.

The Very Best of Winger takes a dive after the Pull material.  The CD is in reverse chronological order, which almost never works.  Yes, it highlights the most current sounding music, but at the cost of consistency.  Winger II: In the Heart of the Young was, let’s be honest, not good.  The ballads were sappier and the rockers too cheesy.  Only “Rainbow in the Rose” really fits on this set.  Past the dreck, the four singles from album #1 are included.  This means the CD at least ends on an up, though the ballad “Headed for a Heartbreak” is a bit anti-climatic.

Go for The Very Best of Winger if:

a) you want to check this band out, or

b) you want the rarities.

Your needs might be met by just buying Pull.

3.5/5 stars

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#662: Wingers of Destiny

DOUBLE FEATURE! Check out Deke’s Winger story at Stick It In Your Ear!

GETTING MORE TALE #662:  Wingers of Destiny

A highschool guy named Rob Petersen recommended Winger to me. Rob was one of the only kids with long hair. I was so jealous of him. He had the Rick Allen curls and everything. Girls thought he was cute. I thought maybe some of his cool could rub off on me. Luckily I sat next to him in Mr. Lightfoot’s history class.

The year was 1989 and the easiest way for me to check out new bands was via the Pepsi Power Hour on MuchMusic.

I recorded the music video for “Seventeen”, which was OK, but didn’t particularly stand out.  Kip Winger’s abs did.  Towards the end of the video, he did this weird thrusty-dance with his bass.  This is memorable to me because the tape that “Seventeen” was on, was also used for a school video project.  I made a music video for “Nothing But A Good Time” by Poison with friends, for a school award.  I recorded my copy on the same tape as “Seventeen” — immediately after it, actually.  When we presented the video to the film teacher, she caught the tail end of “Seventeen”, and Kip’s thrust.  “Oh,” I heard her comment, and I sensed it was more disgust than titillation.

Kip Winger mid-thrust

Despite their image, Winger possessed a rare rock pedigree.  Classically trained bassist and singer Charles “Kip” Winger was fresh from Alice Cooper’s band, as was keyboardist Paul Taylor.  Kip also performed on Twisted Sister’s Love is for Suckers LP in 1987, with future bandmate Reb Beach.  Most impressively, drummer Rod Morgenstein was an alumnus of Steve Morse’s Dixie Dregs.  Yet all these massive players went and made a commercial hard rock album with, let’s face it, pretty juvenile lyrics at times.

It’s hard not to be critical of Winger for this.  Knowing what these guys are capable of, the debut album Winger seems like pandering.  They did sneak in a few progressive hints, such as a string quartet on “Hungry”, but the impression was that they were just another hard rock band with big hair and candycane hooks.  They were underachieving, from a certain point of view.

Winger was in the batch of the first CDs I ever got, for Christmas of 1989.  This was based almost entirely on Rob Petersen’s raving.  Another reason I chose it was the “CD bonus track”!  One of the incentives for buying a CD player was to finally get songs that were only on the CD release.  I had mixed impressions.  The first “side” was decent but the second was a little filler-heavy.

I’m sad to admit this, but Winger’s version of “Purple Haze” was the first time I ever heard the song.  Ozzy’s version was the second.  Go ahead, judge me.

Winger could have taken it further on their second album.  In a way, they did:  progressive songs and complex rhythms stood alongside the pop rock tracks.  While they advanced in that regard, they took a step backwards in another.  Some songs were even dumber:  “Can’t Get Enough” for example, was a transparent re-write of “Seventeen”, and the ballads were dreck.  Worst of all was Kip’s very unnecessary rapping on “Baptized by Fire”.

Two songs, “Rainbow in the Rose” and “In the Heart of the Young” (the title track) were so far above and beyond the pack, they could have come from a different album.  These two epics drip of the kind of progressive rock you know these guys can play.  Yet they kept it radio accessible, somehow, even while Rod Morgenstein is playing rhythms my brain can barely compute.

While Winger II charted higher and sold as well as the first, 12 months later it was hopelessly outdated by the birth of grunge.  Winger then fell victim to two of the 90s greatest antiheroes, Beavis and Butt-Head.  A black Winger shirt was worn by nerd character Stewart, and the band were repeatedly mocked.  This eventually killed Winger off as a business.  Gigs dried up.  Fortunately for fans, Kip Winger and Mike Judge of Beavis and Butt-Head recently had a make-up session. Even Kip admitted, “Winger was a band that was popular for some of the wrong reasons, man.”

The third album, Pull, is a reference to skeet shooting.  Kip knew that for all the chances they had, they may as well throw the album into the air and take shots at it.  “Pull!”

It was a lose-lose situation and both Winger and the public lost by Pull‘s commercial failure.  Keyboardist Paul Taylor had left, and so Pull features less of the instrument and a far heavier sound.  Taylor was eventually replaced by John Roth, a guitarist.  The message was pretty clear.  Pull featured some of Winger’s best tracks:  “Down Incognito”, “Blind Revolution Mad”, “Junkyard Dog”, and “Who’s the One”.  Had Pull come out in 1990 instead of 1993, things would have gone very differently.  Instead, Winger broke up.

The happy news is that like many bands, Winger reunited (the John Roth lineup occasionally with Paul Taylor as a fifth member), and started putting out albums again.  Good ones, too.  Their last Better Days Comin’ is pretty great.

As further proof of Winger’s greatness, Reb Beach went from there to Alice Cooper, completing the circle.  Winger, after all, was originally founded by two ex-Cooper players.  He was then picked to replace George Lynch in Dokken.  And Kip?  His 30 minute symphony “Ghosts” should speak for itself.

Those who are curious but sceptical should check out Winger’s Pull, and the albums that followed.  Go ahead and wing it!

REVIEW: Winger – II – In the Heart of the Young (1990)

Part II of a Winger DOUBLE SHOT.

WINGER – II – In the Heart of the Young (1990 Atlantic)

Another awful album cover; another Winger album!  The ambitious follow-up, still sonically mutilated by producer Beau Hill, was several steps forward and a few steps backwards at the same time.  The year was 1990, and while most bands were starting to toughen things up and go a little heavier, Winger turned on the tap marked “syrup”.

Truly awful is “Can’t Get Enuff”, which Winger admitted took about five minutes to write, when he decided they needed to “make a video about sex”.  Because that’s never been done before.  Nor has a song called “Can’t Get Enough” (spelled correctly).  There is nothing new or necessary here; the talented band are neutered by programmed rhythms and cheesey, generic lyrics.  Not good enuff, although the second tune “Loosen Up” is better.  There could have been some rock and roll groove with “Loosen Up”, but the plastic and thin production removes its teeth.

Keyboardist Paul Taylor, who left the band after this tour, wrote the ballad “Miles Away” by himself and it hits all the bases that a power ballad needed to hit:  Big chorus, sad keyboards, and sappy lyrics!  “Miles Away” never quite felt like it fit on the album stylistically, but it’s actually a decent ballad.  It’s well written and arranged, but so pigeonholed to its time.

I hate synth horns, therefore I hate the single “Easy Come Easy Go”.  There is no substitute for real horns.  Keyboards are quicker and easier, but there is no comparison to the real thing.  Thankfully Winger did utilise real horns on “Rainbow in the Rose”, the first of two epics on the album.  Where “Can’t Get Enuff” was written in minutes, “Rainbow in the Rose” took a year to compose and arrange.  Its complexity is admirable, but a better producer could have given it the finish it deserved.  It’s a shame that with a complicated track like this, you can barely hear what drummer Rod Morgenstein is doing.  He’s one of the best in the world, but he’s buried under keyboards.  When you do listen to what he’s doing, it’s quite incredible work.  As for the song?  The chorus kills!

The second side was more of the same, including another epic at the end.  “In the Day We’ll Never See” was Winger’s attempt to write more serious lyrics, and that’s all well and good.  With a peppy riff and serious tone, it’s a good enough song for a car tape.  Reb Beach’s anthemic guitars are the highlight.  Another side; another ballad — “Under One Condition” sounds like a Warrant song, although that’s probably being unfair.  Warrant could never play like Winger.

Side two has a slew of annoying songs in the middle.  “Little Dirty Blonde” is as putrid as it sounds, but let’s face it folks, it’s not as bad as Kip Winger rapping.  The story goes that they wanted to get Tone Lōc to do his thing over “Baptized By Fire”, but that didn’t happen so Kip rapped it himself.  It’s as annoying as you expect.  One of the most impressive moments on the album is just a short instrumental break, sounding like speedily tapped guitar and bass, right before “Baptised By Fire”, but it’s over too soon before MC Kip takes over.  “You Are the Saint, I Am the Sinner” improves the outlook mildly, annoying title aside.  That leads to the final epic track, “In the Heart of the Young”.  Like “Rainbow in the Rose”, this is a more ambitious arrangement, done with skill and care.  Once again, focusing on Rod Morgenstein allows you to hear the complexities within.  The melodies are strong and Kip’s singing is under-appreciated.

Winger were on to something with the more progressive material.  Where they lost fans was with the dumbed down sounds of songs like “Can’t Get Enuff”, and they paid for it during the grunge onslaught down the road.

2/5 stars

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REVIEW: Winger – Winger (1988)

Part I of a Winger DOUBLE-SHOT.

WINGER – Winger (1988 Atlantic)

When Winger started out, they really played down to their audience.  Kip Winger was a classically trained musician.  Reb Beach was already a virtuoso guitar player whose talent can’t be under-stressed.  Keyboardist Paul Taylor had been around the block a number of times, including a stint with Kip Winger in the Alice Cooper band.  Most impressively, drummer Rod Morgenstein is best respected for the rock fusion combo Dixie Dregs.  To hear guys with that background singing a song that goes, “She’s only seventeen, Dad says she’s too young but she’s old enough for me,”…well it’s just embarrassing.

I call bullshit, Mr. Clarence R. Winger.  He’d been studying classical music since the age of sixteen.  You know he could do better if he wasn’t trying to write cliche rock lyrics.

Musically, Winger (the debut album) isn’t half bad.  In fact it’s more than half good!  The opener “Madalaine” is cheesey rock, but it’s above the bar due to the intense guitar shreddery of Mr. Beach.  It was an era when it was OK to just get up there and tap tap tap away.  There is some musical integrity contained herein, but it’s not in the lyrical department.  The single “Hungry” begins with a string quartet (only 22 seconds’ worth), arranged by Kip.  See?  Flashes of the talent within, but cloaked behind a typical rock power ballad with one of the most overused titles in the genre.  Good songs both…but written down to a specific audience by guys who can do better.

Chief offender “Seventeen” wouldn’t be half bad if it had a different title; any title.  Call it “Buttermilk”.  Instead of:

“She’s only seventeen (seventeen),
I’ll show you love like you’ve never seen,
She’s only seventeen (seventeen),
Dad says she’s too young but she’s old enough for me.”

Change that to:

“I love my buttermilk (buttermilk),
Makes my pancakes as smooth as silk,
I love my buttermilk (buttermilk),
Mom says it’ll make me fat, stop that buttermilk!”

See?  My lyric had depth that theirs doesn’t.  It’s light and shade.  Yes, buttermilk will make your pancakes extra tasty, but what of the health costs?  I could go on and on about the brilliance of my lyric vs. Kip Winger’s.  But I won’t.  You get the point.

Shredding musicianship aside, “Seventeen” is not a good song.

“Without the Night” works well enough as a Bon Jovi-esque power ballad.  What should have been deleted, because they already had enough original material, is a cover of Jimi’s “Purple Haze”.  This is dreadful, overplayed, oversexed, with the only saving grace being a guitar battle with Reb Beach on one side and Dweezil Zappa on the other.  Two monster players going at it is right on.  Kip Winger “ooh ahh-ing” all over “Purple Haze” is blech.  Just focus on Reb and Dweezil, and try your best to ignore Clarence.

The original LP had a side break here, and I think that’s a good idea.  I need to take a moment to get some fresh air.  Something stinks in here….

“State of Emergency” has a little progressive complexity to it, some chops and lyrics that are not about seventeen year old girls, so that is good.  “Time to Surrender” shreds impressively over a slow Ratt-like riff.  All considered, “Time to Surrender” is one of the strongest tracks on the album.  Sadly, “Poison Angel” is the worst.  This one could have been dropped.  “Hangin’ On” is good enough, again boasting some impressive playing from Reb Beach.  The key to listening to Winger is to focus on the instrumentation.

The most impressive track is the ballad “Headed for a Heartbreak”.  Cheesey, yes.  But listen for a moment, to the arrangement, and to the playing.  It’s a hit power ballad, yes…but there are progressive complexities to the arrangement.  Listen to Rod Morgenstein’s drumming.  His patterns are not simple rock cliches.  Too bad it’s so hard to hear what he’s doing.  Winger has a brittle production, thanks to schlock-meister Beau Hill, ruiner of many an album.  Over-processing and harsh gating on Rod’s drum sound gives the album a plastic feel.  Some tracks such as “State of Emergency” should have more heft, but it is lost.  “Time to Surrender” needs less gloss.  The album has hardly any bass, and the thing about that is that Kip Winger is actually a pretty good bassist (not to mention singer).

The CD only bonus track (oh 1988, I miss you so) is a short rocker called “Higher and Higher”.  It’s a better track than the similar-paced “Poison Angel” and should have swapped places with it.  There’s also one other interesting little track to be found.  Another short rocker called “Out for the Count” made an appearance on the soundtrack to Karate Kid III.  I picked that up at a Zellers store, I think, on a clearance sale around 1992.  It was an odd find, but being a collector I grabbed it for the one track.  (Also on the CD is “48 Hours” by a band called PBF, better known as Pretty Boy Floyd!)  Swap “Out for the Count” for “Purple Haze”, and the Winger album would have been far stronger.

It’s really hard to boil this down to a simple number rating.  I’ve come up with an equation based on your valuing of playing and songcraft,

Where x = a scale from 0-5 on how much you value shredding,

and y = a scale from 0-5 on your importance of song craft,

Then the rating for this album is:

= 3 + (x/4) – (y/4) / 5 stars

WINGER

 

 

 

 

 

 

REVIEW: Alice Cooper – A Fistful of Alice (1999, Japanese edition with bonus tracks)

Scan_20160418 (2)ALICE COOPER – A Fistful of Alice (1999 Guardian records, Japanese edition with bonus tracks)

A Fistful of Alice was released at a time when the sometimes maligned The Alice Cooper Show was the only official live Cooper album.  As only the second live Alice record, Fistful didn’t receive the attention it deserved.  That’s especially too bad, considering it had cool guests including Slash, Rob Zombie, and Sammy Hagar.   There are lots of Alice Cooper live recordings to get today, but in ’99 that wasn’t quite the case.  Fistful, recorded at Hagar’s Cabo Wabo Cantina, came a full five years after Cooper’s last studio album, The Last Temptation, ending the long drought.   The single new song, “Is Anyone Home?” was a pleasant acoustic rock keeper, but the main feature was the live stuff.

There are lots of versions of this album, but only the Japanese has the full 17 song track list.  It took me 15 years to finally track one down at a decent price.   The Japanese edition is worth the effort just for “Clones (We’re All)”, a song that was rarely played for a lot of Cooper’s career.  It’s from near the start of Alice’s 80’s art-punk persona, but its robotic synth-pop was catchy enough for the Smashing Pumpkins to cover it.  The other two bonus tracks are “Bed of Nails” from Trash, and the classic “No More Mr. Nice Guy”.  One that wasn’t on the domestic edition, but was on the UK version is “Under My Wheels”.  Cooper’s band at this time featured Reb Beach (Winger/Whitesnake) on guitar, and damn does he shred on “Under My Wheels”!  The rest of the lineup consisted of Jimmy DeGrasso (Megadeth/Black Star Riders) on drums, guitarist Ryan Roxie (Slash), bassist Todd Jensen (David Lee Roth) and Beach’s old Winger bandmate Paul Taylor on keyboards.  This was Taylor’s second stint with Cooper.  His first stint in the mid-80’s eventually launched the band Winger, since Kip Winger was in the Cooper band at the time.

Besides “Clones”, other pleasant surprises in the set include “Desperado” (“a song I wrote for Jim Morrison a long time ago”),  “Teenage Lament ’74” (dedicated to the glitter and glam rockers) and “I Never Cry”.  “Welcome to My Nightmare” is preceded by an excerpt from the chilling classic “Steven”.  Familiar concert perennials include “Feed My Frankenstein” with Rob Zombie, “Only Women Bleed” with Slash, and “Elected” featuring both.  Slash also plays on the newer tune “Lost in America”, fitting right in there naturally.  It’s quite a decent track list, and Cooper’s band is as professional as any other lineup.  The sonics are great, and Fistful is a nice full recording without a lot of crowd noise.  The Cabo Wabo is probably a great stage for capturing a live recording.

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Finally, Alice self-produced the new song “Is Anyone Home?”, featuring a different set of musicians.  Unexpectedly pop sounding and even featuring a Beatles-like string section, “Is Anyone Home?” was very unlike most of Alice’s stuff.  Take acoustic rock a-la popular 90’s acts like Fastball or the Goo Goo Dolls, crank it up a notch, and add Alice Cooper’s unmistakable voice.  It’s a good track to throw on as a bonus for a live album.  It did not indicate at all where Cooper was going musically, which would prove to be the industro-metal of Brutal Planet.  “Is Anyone Home?” then is an interesting sideline from the main trajectory, but worth having.

A Fistful of Alice was an important album in some ways.  At the time, many fans wondered if Alice had quietly retired.   He hadn’t.  He was playing a lot of golf, but he was also touring regularly.  I saw him play a similar set in Kitchener Ontario in 1997, with the lineup including Reb Beach.  Like on Fistful, he played a few songs from his most recent album even though he technically wasn’t supporting it, and I liked that.  Pick up A Fistful of Alice for a good single-disc summary of the Alice Cooper live experience, and a pretty decent new tune too.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Alice Cooper – Raise Your Fist and Yell (1987)

Scan_20160303ALICE COOPER – Raise Your Fist and Yell (1987 MCA)

And lo!  The beast named Alice reincarnated with a slab of wax, and they called it Constrictor.  Slithering into the spotlight again was a triumph of will:  Alice battled his demons (including the bottle), found some new young band members and started fresh on a new label.    Though the music was merely OK, at least the man himself was doing just fine.  As fans, I believe we genuinely wish our rock star heroes to be healthy and happy, so even if the music wasn’t the greatest, we could be glad that Alice was back.

In the 70’s and early 80’s, Alice Cooper maintained a breakneck release schedule.  This slowed down a bit in the second phase of Cooper’s career, but he still managed to follow Constrictor a mere 12 months later with Raise Your Fist and Yell.  I probably don’t need to tell you this, but look at the cover:  certainly one of the worst to ever envelope a major label release.  The guilty party is a fella named Jim Warren who must hate this cover as much as I do, because just look at it.

It continued with the same shock-rock horror-splatter-movie theme, but turned up louder.  Indeed, the lead single “Freedom” was the fastest most thrash-like track that Alice had yet performed.  Censorship was a big target in Alice’s sights.  “Freedom” was his ode to the PMRC:  “You want to rule us with an iron hand, you change the lyrics and become big brother.  This ain’t Russia!  You ain’t my dad or mother.”  Lemme tell you, when “Freedom” came out, the PMRC seemed a genuine threat.  Dee Snider and Frank Zappa were testifying in front of the senate and stores were refusing to stock records.  “Freedom” was an anthem we could all get behind.  I don’t think anybody expected him to go so heavy!

The video was interesting. Kane Roberts looks like he’s not sure if he’s at a bodybuilding competition or a music video shoot. There were some new guys in the band; that’s not Kip Winger on bass. On drums is Ken Mary, later of House of Lords. Most interesting is the guy dressed as a priest. You can see him up close during the lyric “Back off preacher I don’t care if it’s Sunday.” They looked like the biggest bunch of misfits assembled. Perhaps this is what Alice was going for?

During this period, Alice was writing a few goofy rock songs.  “Lock Me Up” is silly, but fun.  It has a beat and you can headbang to it.  “Take the Radio Back” sounds like a predecessor to “Hey Stoopid”, but not quite.  “Give the radio back to the maniac!” sings Alice.  Is he begging for airplay?  It’s OK, but “Step on You” isn’t really.  There are moments here and there, but these are mediocre songs.  “Step on You” has an interesting atonal instrumental section but it doesn’t fit the song at all.  “Not That Kind of Love” continues the heavy rock, but without hooks.

Back to quality, “Prince of Darkness” is a heavy metal horror movie theme, from the film of the same name in which Alice had a cameo.  Menacing and intense, this tune scores high marks on both the Cooper Scale of Rock Thrills and Chills, and the Cooper Scale of Heavy.  Kane Roberts’ lead solo is pure pointless 80’s excess, but the song is what counts and it’s a good’un.  The acoustic outro is perfection.

“Time to Kill” keeps things above the bar.  “Chop, Chop, Chop” does not.  I know — you’re surprised, right?  A song called “Chop, Chop, Chop” isn’t a diamond of the highest carat weight?  Nor is it a turd, but certainly well below the watermark.  It does serve as a lead-in to “Gail”, a high quality also-ran that recalls Alice in the year 1975.  It is the only Kip Winger co-write on the album, and he’s responsible for its eerie keyboard vibe.  Finally it’s “Roses on White Lace”, another borderline thrash metal track that absolutely rips every head in the room off.  This track, firmly in the splatter film world, is an excellent example of Alice at his heaviest.  For its entire duration, it’s breakneck speed.  Bold song to end an album with.

Post album, Kip Winger and keyboardist Paul Taylor bailed, and formed another band you might have heard of.  Michael Wagener produced this record, and while heavy, the album is definitely lacking sonically in comparison to its contemporaries.  All told there are four songs worth buying the album for:  “Freedom”, “Prince of Darkness”, “Roses on White Lace”, and Gail.  Three of those four songs can be found on the MCA compilation Prince of Darkness.  So…your move.

2.5/5 stars

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