George Starostin's Reviews

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Class ?

Main Category: Pop Rock
Also applicable: Hard Rock, Arena Rock
Starting Period: The Punk/New Wave Years
Also active in: The Divided Eighties, From Grunge To The Present Day



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Postponed until the page is more comprehensive.



Year Of Release: 1977
Overall rating = 11

Give 'em credit for inventing a new sound, but subtract points for the extra messiness, too.


Track listing: 1) ELO Kiddies; 2) Daddy Should Have Stayed In High School; 3) Taxman Mr Thief; 4) Cry Cry; 5) Oh Candy; 6) Hot Love; 7) Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace; 8) He's A Whore; 9) Mandocello; 10) The Ballad Of TV Violence (I'm Not The Only Boy).

With their debut album, Cheap Trick establish themselves as yet another bunch of guys way too devoid of genius to be the next Beatles, but clever enough to get a new kind of sound going on that helps one being tricked into thinking that they just might be the new Beatles. It's a "cheap trick", you see - never has any band been more adequately adapted to their very name.

The cheap trick in question is to merge pop music with hard rock, of course, by playing innocent Beatlesque melodies with ragged dirty guitars (and additionally, setting them to dark lyrical matters wherever possible). It may not seem much nowadays, but the funny thing is, looking back at the times I really don't see too many people getting the same idea. "Power pop" as performed by Big Star or Badfinger certainly didn't mean to be rocking out, and the hard rocking bands that had some sort of a pop sensibility, like Thin Lizzy, for instance, were certainly more concerned about the grit and the adrenaline than about chord and tonal structures. In this way, Cheap Trick is definitely an innovative album - in some ways.

Perhaps the problem with it, the main reason why it took me, for instance, a good six or seven listens before I started giving in to some of the songs, is that the material is sort of imbalanced. Cheap Trick are just playing too loud on this album: not loud enough to transgress into the proper hard rock camp like a more, say, refined Aerosmith or something, but way too loud to let the melodies shine through. Of course, some of the songs may not have good melodies altogether, like the clumsy, lumpy 'Daddy Should Have Stayed In High School', whose cool title certainly doesn't match the slow, plodding, disjointed, over-distorted, unmemorable guitar work. But misfires like these are exceptions: the songs in general are well-written, you just might have the impression that they're hiding the lack of composing skills behind that wall of heaviness. And even when you do get past that impression, you still can't help but be left with a feeling that these songs just don't need to be so heavy. It's not the kind of Who-style imposing heaviness, when the loudness is supposed to blow you out of your seat and send you into a parallel universe; rather it's the kind of "self-insurance" heaviness that you add to your songs just so that nobody could call you a sissy popster. I mean, look at the front cover - these guys certainly had to plug in those pedals to get rid of nerd complexes.

Never mind, though, because the songs are good. 'Taxman Mr Thief', which I - somewhat arbitrarily - chose as the best song on the album, actually has one of the best-used Beatles quotes I've ever heard: while the main melody, both vocal and instrumental, has nothing to do with the Revolver song, the way in which the band immaculately weaves the 'Tax-maaaan Mr Heat!' quote into the chorus is amazing. Of course, the band's idolatry of the Beatles never really gets concealed: it's no big wonder the band was actually backing up Lennon in the early stages of recording Double Fantasy, as John was arguably lead singer Robin Zander's main musical ideal. Look at all the nasality involved in his singing: it's directly emulating John's trademark singing style.

The Beatles, of course, never rocked as hard as Cheap Trick. Rick Neilsen may be overplaying regularly, but the ultra-powerful fast opening to 'Hot Love' is totally stunning, one of the best "let's-start-this-song-with-an-immediate-bang" gimmicks this side of Aerosmith's 'Toys In The Attic'. Same thing with the tricky chord sequence in the intro to 'The Ballad Of TV Violence', which supposedly deals with psychopathic matters involving serial killers and stuff, but definitely cannot hide its 'Cold Turkey' influences - not that it needs to, it's one hell of a terrific tribute to the one guy who originated that kind of thing. (Weird, isn't it? Zander even goes into a hysterical rant-and-rave at the end of the song, just like John did in 'Cold Turkey').

Other highlights include 'ELO Kiddies', which is more like an overamplified T-Rex song rather than a Beatles tribute this time, but with a sharper attitude - heck, after all, it urges you to quit school in favour of a criminal life (okay, not really). 'Oh Candy' has the potential of being a sentimental-but-powerful hit for the ages, unfortunately ruined by flat production and unmemorable guitar lines (the vocals really carry the song). The barroom rock-style 'Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace' is the great Lynyrd Skynyrd song that Lynyrd Skynyrd never wrote, although maybe the number doesn't quite live up to the magnificent guitarwork at the opening (watch out when the main "lead riff" comes in - that's when your head starts bobbing twice as energetically as you intended). 'He's A Whore' has 'anytime at all, anytime at all' as the chorus, but the title certainly puts it into a different category from most Beatles songs - as does the crunchy descending guitar riff and the frenetic adrenalinized coda. And while the only 'softer' song on the record, 'Mandocello', never manages to stick in my head, while it's on, I'm quite delighted with how Zander's vocals are fading in in the verses as the lone emotionless bassline supports the bulk of the song.

In short, the album just shows that at least as late as the late Seventies there was still some hope for Beatlesque pop in the world. What these guys missed was the usual thing - diversity; essentially, apart from 'Mandocello', every song sounds the same, and eventually you just start to wonder if they ever knew that you can, like, try different things when you're in the studio. But it's still an impressive debut, with one or two misfires at most.



Year Of Release: 1977
Overall rating = 11

Cleaner this time, but not all the songs are great as some would like you to believe.

Best song: BIG EYES

Track listing: 1) Hello There; 2) Big Eyes; 3) Downed; 4) I Want You To Want Me; 5) You're All Talk; 6) Oh Caroline; 7) Clock Strikes Ten; 8) Southern Girls; 9) Come On Come On; 10) So Good To See You.

This is where Cheap Trick get their sound all glossed up and polished and consequently garner radioplay, commercial success, and power-pop-fan adulation. Other than the production, there are absolutely no departures from the debut's formula, though, but hey, some people thrive on formula, and Cheap Trick sure wore theirs out over the years. In 1977, however, the formula was still fresh. And exciting.

Generalizations about this record won't do you much good, especially considering I've already made most of them in the previous review. So let's just go to the songs this time. 'Hello There' - not so much of an actual song, really, as simply a kick-ass, and also somewhat tongue-in-cheek, introduction to the debauchery of the album. 'Hello there ladies and gentlemen! Are you ready to rock?'. Actually, I think this was written simply so as to give the band an excellent crowd-pleasing way of kicking into high gear at the start of their live show (as is aptly demonstrated by Budokan).

'Big Eyes' - a stroke of masterful inspiration and a terrific heavy metal riff for the ages. The song is pure pop, but it's based on that crunchy guitar monster in the chorus that would have made Tony Iommi proud. One could question the necessity of such a near-frightening riff in a love song, but it's not like anybody actually makes a big deal of Cheap Trick's lyrics in the first place. Any band capable of writing a riff like that one is automatically worth something in my book. 'Downed' is one song on the album I'm frankly not crazy about - sounds like a loudly played secondary Big Star outtake, with pedestrian chord sequences and pretty much not a single hook until the coda, where the frantic 'dooooooowned, doooowned out of my head!' screaming at least causes you to pay some attention.

The music-hallish, McCartney-esque 'I Want You To Want Me', with its prominent piano rhythm, is the album's "saccharine" track, but it actually serves as a good breather, and besides, the 'didn't I didn't I didn't I didn't I see you crying?...' refrain is quite marvelously constructed in the best British Invasion tradition. Nielson's slight boogie guitar break is a nice touch as well. But much more prominent is 'You're All Talk', which once again reminds me of certain John Lennon rockers (shit, it's definitely not a coincidence that the guy eventually hired them... definitely not a coincidence). Funky and cool, with a classy guitar sound and just a slight touch of 'muddiness' to Zander's singing so that it doesn't sound like some overproduced suffocating REO Speedwagon song or anything.

'Oh Caroline' almost pokes fun at the band's own formula - hey, aren't those the same guys who wrote 'Oh Candy' for their previous album? What next, 'Oh Camilla?' 'Oh Cynthia?' [NO! Check out the tracklisting for Heaven Tonight in advance if you really wanna know what the answer is!] But joking aside, it's one of those dumb half-rockers/half-power ballads that you can't help enjoying even if you can never really tell what it is exactly that you're liking so much. I mean, it can't be the cheesy "[wimpy falsetto] go to the end of the world... [brawny cock-rock scream] for your loooove!" chorus, can it? But it definitely is, in the end. See, some people got charisma and some just don't got it. Can you imagine somebody like Sammy Hagar or the guy from Foreigner having a go at the song? You can - but you probably wouldn't want to!

The ladies and gentlemen go on rocking with 'Clock Strikes Ten'. I guess by 1977 old stalwarts like 'Rock Around The Clock' or 'Reelin' And Rockin' weren't working that well no more, and Cheap Trick come up with a very much "contemporary" we're-just-having-some-fun anthem, again, managing not to embarrass themselves and even using a pseudo-clock-chime-sound as the basis for the instrumental break. I'd be damned if I didn't mention that the crazyass vocal loopings on the chorus are more or less pilfered from Little Richard's 'Jenny Jenny', though.

'Southern Girls' lyrically recalls 'California Girls', but melodically it's not so much a tribute to the best surf-rock band of all time as an ABBA-esque Euro-pop melody dressed in raunchy electric guitars, although the hooks are somewhat less distinctive than in the case of ABBA. Likewise, 'Come On Come On' is second rate McCartney again, and 'So Good To See You' does catch the 'farewell vibe' pretty well to match its title, but doesn't look like an obvious highlight; from which you can make the correct conclusion I'm not wild enough about the endin' trinity, but perhaps it's merely a matter of getting used to it. See, while I did say that the production is much cleaner and glossier here, it doesn't mean it's THAT much glossy and clean. You can hear the instruments just fine, but there's still way too much sludge coming out of your speakers for me to be perfectly happy. Hey, don't ask me why that is - I'm just here to whine and bitch about problems, it's not my job to offer constructive critique or anything. Besides, what good would my constructive critique be? It's not like they're gonna re-record the album after reading the review anyway!



Year Of Release: 1978
Overall rating = 12

Same as before, but with a slight touch of synthesizer, slight touch of Goth... rocks just as heavily, though, hmm, must be good then.


Track listing: 1) Surrender; 2) On Top Of The World; 3) California Man; 4) High Roller; 5) Auf Wiedersehen; 6) Takin' Me Back; 7) On The Radio; 8) Heaven Tonight; 9) Stiff Competition; 10) How Are You; 11) Oh Claire.

Okay, so I figure rating three Cheap Trick albums in a row with the same figure would look ridiculous. What are they, Neil Young? So then here's this problem - you have three very similar studio albums which are all good but one of them is probably a li'l better so you'd know where to start. Then I gets to thinking, why not promote Heaven Tonight? It's got more or less the same filler/good stuff proportions as In Color, but at least it's got one or two really really outstanding tracks, so it's more listenable in one setting if the monotonousness of atmosphere gets you down. So yeah, here's my Patented Arbitrary Rating, and keep in mind these early albums are all pretty good - as good as stripped down similar-sounding sloppy hard rock albums ever get, I guess.

The outstanding track on here is the title one, where Cheap Trick really go for something they hadn't yet done: the creepy somber ballad about death and drugs. It takes taste and subtlety to pull such a thing off, usually, I mean it's certainly not a "cheap trick affair", but basically they get it right because it gets me. It's this minor chord gloomy dirge that sounds like a cross between late period Zeppelin and mid period ELO, or, to be more precise, a cross between 'Kashmir' and 'Shangri La', but the overall effect they're going for is more akin to the Stones' 'Sister Morphine', because the lyrics clearly deal with the victim of an overdose. And thus, every time Zander goes 'would you like to go to heaven tonight?' and then moans like a guy on his deathbed, you're bound to get a bit nervous. Some people dismiss the song, claiming Cheap Trick aren't that good when it comes to atmosphere, but I say they manage it perfectly.

But, of course, it's still an exception. And the rule? Why, the rule is followed to a tee! Like in 'Surrender', which welcomes the listener by a slightly unsettling whirl of synthesizers, but don't worry, they're merely filling out the sonic space out there in the background. The sound is still fully guitar based. And 'Surrender' is actually another absolute highlight, a delightful anthem about a kid and his parents who are actually hipper than the kid, with an uplifting chorus that, uh, kinda gives you something to think about - 'surrender, surrender, but don't give yourself away!'. What da heck is that supposed to mean? A HIDDEN MESSAGE? IN A CHEAP TRICK SONG? SMART!!!!! Seriously, I don't often follow Cheap Trick lyrics, and it's a great song anyway. Catchy! Powerful! Anthemic! And NOT in a "wave that lighter" way either! It's too fast for that!

Speaking of pure unadulterated rock'n'roll, this time around, instead of writing a song for themselves, Cheap Trick pay tribute to The Move, covering 'California Man' as the piece of fast tongue-in-cheek mastodontic boogie as it is; and speaking of "mastodontic", they also throw in the bassline from 'Brontosaurus' for a change. I wouldn't mind if they'd made a real medley of the two pieces, actually - hey, if anybody was born on this planet to do Move covers, Cheap Trick are IT. Listen to Nielsen take off during that guitar break! Hey, we hadn't heard such tearing guitar solos since the fifty millionth Chuck Berry imitator passed away! And boy are we glad to hear them! Are you ready to rock, ladies and gentlemen?

Back in Cheap Trick camp proper, the boys vent their suicidal frustrations with 'Auf Wiedersehen', arguably the meanest, most vicious (if not necessarily the catchiest) song recorded by the gang. Borrowing a lyrical line from 'All Along The Watchtower' and featuring "goodbye!" in many of the world's languages, it rips you to shreds and ends your life on the spot - figuratively speaking, of course. You have to understand, these guys don't mean it, of course. They're intelligent enough to just think of this suicidal motive as something that would move the song along, yet dumb enough to make it essentially merely another lumpy, lumbering hard rocker. Which isn't an insult, of course, because it's a terrific hard rocker.

For the sake of making a long long review, I'll also mention 'On Top Of The World', whose lyrical subject is too goofy for me to reproduce, but you got to love a song which takes the phrase "you're on top of the world and you can't get any higher, you're on top of the world tonight" and transforms it into a romantic refrain which you just can't get out of your socks. I'll also say that there are several more solid rockers on here, none of which deserve separate mention because they all sound alike (but they sound good!), and that the album closes with 'How Are You?', which is essentially a sequel to 'I Want You To Want Me', but is every bit as good and arguably better, and again, Paul McCartney should have stolen the song for himself. Strange that Cheap Trick didn't write these music hall sendups more often if they were so good at them. I mean, there's only so much riff-based distorted rock you can take for one album, eh?

Anyway, this is all cool stuff. I wish I could say something profound and spiritual and deeply rooted in general semiotics theory, but I just happened to look at the back cover of the album, with Nielsen and Carlos in the bathroom brushing their teeth and adjusting their ties, and I kinda lost the desire. Some things are better left unsaid, I suppose. Ah well.



Year Of Release: 1979-98
Overall rating = 12

These guys sure rock 'em boats. Problem is, for real old Cheap Trick fans that shouldn't be big news.

Best song: piss off already.

Track listing: 1) Hello There; 2) Come On Come On; 3) ELO Kiddies; 4) Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace; 5) Big Eyes; 6) Lockout; 7) Downed; 8) Can't Hold On; 9) Oh Caroline; 10) Surrender; 11) Auf Wiedersehen; 12) Need Your Love; 13) High Roller; 14) Southern Girls; 15) I Want You To Want Me; 16) California Man; 17) Goodnight; 18) Ain't That A Shame; 19) Clock Strikes Ten.

Ah yes, the beginning and end of the Cheap Trick legend. Most people make this their first Cheap Trick purchase, based on the enormous hype which, in turn, is due to the album's original (and pretty unexpected, as Cheap Trick weren't exactly America's best-sellers before 1979) commercial success. Note that the album is so legendary it has a long history of its own - the original At Budokan was a single LP with but ten songs on it. Then, more than a decade later, the band released the rest of the performance as Budokan II, throwing in three numbers from a different show to fill space; and finally, in 1998 they released the show in its entirety on a 2-CD set, rearranging the songs in their proper sequence and probably remixing everything as well. As you may have guessed from the cover, my version is subtitled The Complete Concert, although for me, the history doesn't stop there - apparently, witty Russian bootleggers thought of a way to squeeze the entire content of the show onto one CD, cutting out some applause but, thankfully, none of the songs or even almost none of the stage banter. Makes up for a great 80 minutes CD of live Cheap Trick - a cute bargain if you axe me.

Anyway, this is, of course, an excellent live performance, although to be entirely frank with you, I've been a bit disappointed by the hype. One thing I just definitely do not agree upon is that most of the songs are improved upon in comparison to the studio versions. I guess theoretically the level of energy is higher, and there's no question whether the band let it rip on stage or not. They certainly do. But let's not forget that their studio production, at least up to that point, was just as raw and kick-ass. Whether it be Nielsen's distorted guitars or Zander's lionine roar, they showed no mercy in the studio. Does anybody really want to insist that Zander's scream of 'YOU KNOW THEY'RE OUT TO GET YOU!' on 'ELO Kiddies' is wilder on Budokan than on Cheap Trick? I don't think so.

Basically, I think it's just a matter of acquisition - the live versions don't really improve on the studio ones and vice versa, so if you bought in to the hype and got Budokan first, you're probably gonna be disappointed in the studio stuff. Or maybe not. Well that's my guess anyway. Ah well. I mean, I can easily tell the wide, wide, wide difference between, say, a Who studio and live record, or a Deep Purple studio and live record, but Cheap Trick? Hmm.

In any case, the fact remains that At Budokan is one of, if not the, most widely acclaimed live record of its time - along with Kiss' Alive!, I guess, and there are indeed huge similarities between the two. Hey, you probably knew already that Cheap Trick were big Kiss fans (at the very least, you probably heard the Kiss reference in 'Surrender'), and they go for a similar "keep it simple, stupid" approach when giving it all to their fans, but, of course, pretty much every musician who ever claimed to be a Kiss fan turned out to be a better musician than anybody in Kiss itself, and Cheap Trick write more complex, slightly more brainy, and - yeah - definitely less obnoxious material, not to mention having a bank accountant-looking guy behind the drums.

And they know how to build up tension - starting with the obligatory 'Hello There (Ladies And Gentlemen, Are You Ready To Rock?)' intro, they capture the poor unsuspecting Japanese into their tight rock'n'roll vise and never let go until the very end, at times heating up the already fanatical atmosphere with statements like 'The first thing I did when I came to Japan, was to buy a Japanese guitar! [yells of ecstatic howling from thousands of prepubescent Japanese girls]'. Of course, they cut down on the 'softer' or 'moodier' material - too bad, I would very much have wanted to see what would stuff like 'Heaven Tonight' look like in this setting. Oh well, granted, Cheap Trick don't have a whole lot of 'softer' or 'moodier' material, do they? They sure play 'I Want You To Want Me', though, toughening it up a bit with Nielsen's usual distorted lead guitar lines, and then popularize it immensely by releasing it as a single.

The material in general is taken from In Color and the then-upcoming Heaven Tonight; the self-titled album is somewhat underrepresented (where's 'Taxman Mr Thief'? where's 'He's A Whore'? I want my money back!), but then there are also a few surprises, like the otherwise unavailable 'Lookout' and the bluesy 'Can't Hold On', as well as a "pre-view" of 'Need Your Love' from Dream Police, which, unfortunately, degenerates into a half-assed "jam" midway through: one thing the Tricksters should definitely stay away from is jamming in any way, as they simply don't have the chops or the improvisatory imagination to do it. And for the encore, before bringing things to a rousing climax with 'Clock Strikes Ten', they throw in a crowd-pleasing rendition of 'Ain't That A Shame' - with that fun gimmick of every band member taking short "solo" stabs at his respective instrument at the end (yes, Zander actually does play an occasional guitar in concert, at least, that's the way he's shown on one of the photos).

Particular highs include: the rabble-rousing roar of 'California Man', Zander's cheesy "IT'S! TIME! FOR! SOUTHERN! GIRLS!", Petersson's noisy bass intro to 'Speak Now', and the band's "black gloomy" collective spot on 'Auf Wiedersehen'. Particular lows include... well, nothing really apart from that stupid jam bit. All in all, I realize I should get all over my head with this stuff, but really, I've spent most of my excitement on these guys' studio records already. Besides, I'm just not a tremendous fan when it comes to reveling in the excesses of arena-rock ummm... in the flesh. But don't get me wrong - it IS a great live album.



Year Of Release: 1983
Overall rating = 11

If that's a guitar-shaped Todd Rundgren effigy they're holding out there, they could have paid more respect to the man who saved this album!

Best song: Y.OY.OY

Track listing: 1) I Can't Take It; 2) Borderline; 3) I Don't Love Here Anymore; 4) Next Position Please; 5) Younger Girls; 6) Dancing The Night Away; 7) You Talk Too Much; 8) 3-D; 9) You Say Jump; 10) Y.OY.OY; 11) Won't Take No For An Answer; 12) Heaven's Falling; 13) Invaders Of The Heart; 14) Don't Make Our Love A Crime.

Todd Rundgren saves. If you're a lonely untalented decrepit sick old fuck, come to Todd Rundgren and he'll save you. You have only to give him the right to discuss, rewrite, rearrange, remix, rerecord, reproduce, and repackage your material, which inevitably makes your album a Todd Rundgren album, but in the process, you'll be saved.

So when Cheap Trick's fortunes started floundering in the early Eighties, teaming up with The Guru of Intellectual Pop was easily the best thing they could do. Well, Cheap Trick's own pop wasn't all that intellectual, but it wasn't exactly dumb, either, and that's exactly the mix that Todd prefers working with. The problem is, Todd rarely works with anybody for more than one record, meaning that in this case, as in so many others, salvation was only temporary, and that the Trick started floundering again no sooner had they left the safe cover of Mr Rundgren's haven.

In the meantime, though, what they did was arguably their last great album (in a long time, at least). And I do mean it, in a way. I think Next Position Please, even if it doesn't scale the heights of 'Heaven Tonight' and 'Surrender', is still a pretty enjoyable album to own, with almost no misfires. Now the obvious complaint is: 'yeah, but they don't rock'. True. Todd Rundgren isn't much of a rock guy, and so the formerly loud guitars are very much subdued and all. Well, that ain't no problem by itself. There's a time for loud obnoxious guitars and then there's a time for quiet shimmering poppy guitars; and if this makes the Trick sound like the second coming of Big Star, well, what's wrong with that?

Not that Next Position Please sounds anything like Big Star. But still, it's a nice, clean, and lively-sounding pop album all based on a juicy guitar sound - just remember for a moment that we're talking nineteen eighty-three here and that even Duran Duran were past their peak by that time, with lesser, pettier and uglier synth-pop acts all around. The songs are mostly of the standard 'boy meets girl' variety, albeit with an occasional interesting lyrical twist, but then again, take an album like In Color and tell me you liked it because it was all biting social commentary. Duh. Yes, I won't deny there is a slightly dumber and more lightweight atmosphere on here, but that's mainly because they took out the heaviness. Not much else. Once you manage to get over the fact that Cheap Trick are now so inoffensive you can play this to your conservative parents, the album becomes what it is: a good collection of good pop songs.

With hooks a-plenty, of course - that's puttin' the "trick" back into "Cheap Trick" for ya! Pretty much every song has a couple. Out of the bouncy pop rockers, the lead-in number 'I Can't Take It' deserves special attention: Zander sounds great without the wall of distortion behind his back, and the classic hell-raising vocal harmonies are still perfectly in place. And the overall energy and the overall desperation in Robin's voice make sure that the album has enough power to convince the unfaithful that yes, Cheap Trick are still the youthful heralds of power pop, no matter how slick the production can be. On 'Borderline' they go for a sort of 'Roy Orbison' sound, with Zander even singing in the corresponding lower register - with a limited dose of success - and the final results fairly convincing. I think Roy himself wouldn't refuse a little stab at this kind of material.

The title track sounds like Rod Stewart meets Abba - alternating a rough (well, as rough as Todd permits it) and brash verse melody with a slick-as-hell harmonized chorus - and, speaking of biting social commentary, well here's some for you! Making the album actually more "deep" than In Color, in a way. 'Younger Girls' is defiantly dumb and sexist but who cares when the chorus leaves such a deep imprint in your memory? This is cheap entertainment, but it's not Kiss or anything - it actually took some time to write. It's interesting to note that 'You Talk Too Much', arguably the heaviest and raunchiest song on the whole album, is also the shortest: did Mr Rundgren really have such a low level of tolerance for such things? It's a forgettable, but not uninteresting noisy rump that makes a nice "intro" to the even noisier, but less heavy and definitely less pleasant '3-D', a song where they seem to be more concerned with the problem of screaming "you like what you see!" in five different ways before launching into an even messier solo section. Hey guys, I'd prefer you stick to heavy rock instead.

When it comes to selecting favourites, people usually tend to suck up to Todd's own contribution, the anthemic 'Heaven's Falling'. Now I place the anthemic power of that song under no doubt, and I like its multi-guitar-drenched production as much as anybody, but it also can't help reminding me of what I consider to be Todd's main weakness: unability to channel the Holy Spirit directly and having to construct his own model of the Holy Spirit, bit by bit, instead. The sound is great, the singing is passionate, but something is definitely lacking in that melody. You may not believe me, but there it is. Cheap Trick have it, Todd doesn't. 'Younger Girls' is a stupid song, but it has "it". 'Heaven's Falling' is smarter, but it doesn't. There's too much posing there and not enough true genius.

So I guess that for me, 'Y.OY.OY' will still remain the best song, despite the stupid orthography. A mid-tempo soulful ballad, it is again a great showcase for Zander - they did this stuff like 'Oh Caroline' before, but now, with the guitars toned down, you can really hear all the passion and longing with nobody tampering with it. In fact, I think I've really misjudged Zander's vocal capacities before hearing this album - not any longer, with the gorgeous dreamy delivery in this song. If the 'why oh why oh why can't I...' line doesn't convince you of the same things it has convinced me of, well then, the only explanation I can offer is that you've been able to see through this guy much earlier.

Next Position Please is by no means fully consistent. There are these songs that overdo the dumbness thing, like 'Younger Girls', and songs that are too messy, like '3-D', and then there's the Motown cover ('Dancing The Night Away') which the company forced them to release as a single - God bless the early to mid-Eighties, easily the worst era for creative rock management - and which just isn't good at all, although it ain't exactly as proverbially horrible as it is often described, either. But then there are fourteen songs on this album, get this? More than an entire side of a cassette tape can hold! Take away the two or three songs that really irk your jerk in a perky herk, and you'll still have enough solidly crafted pop material to make your day. And I didn't even mention every single hook to you.



Year Of Release: 1988
Overall rating = 9

Well, the good stuff is actually quite good. But the bad stuff is indeed quite bad.

Best song: LET GO

Track listing: 1) Let Go; 2) No Mercy; 3) The Flame; 4) Space; 5) Never Had A Lot To Lose; 6) Don't Be Cruel; 7) Wrong Side Of Love; 8) All We Need Is A Dream; 9) Ghost Town; 10) All Wound Up.

I've actually heard this record called a "comeback" for Cheap Trick - and not just because it, quite literally, features the "comeback" of Tom Peterson after more than half a decade of vacation time, but because it manages to actively mend the troubles caused by their previous two albums by bringing in the help of outside songwriters. Yeah, that's the way they put it. And indeed, looking at the track list doesn't leave much doubt about the fact that the Tricksters weren't exactly doing a ton of songwriting in 1988. I don't recognize any "biggies" except for Diane Warren in the credits, but then again, I'm not the biggest expert on outside songwriting. Come to think of it, I'm not the biggest expert on anything - that's just my problem.

So, as sort of a phoney expert on rock music, I am empowered to inform you that Lap Of Luxury ain't half bad. Well, actually, it is half bad. It is exactly half bad and half good. There are five tracks here that rank from decent to excellent and five filthy rags that rank from hardly tolerable to nauseating. That said, at the very least Zander is in excellent vocal form throughout and the band still shows some punch even from behind all the glossy production. In any case, this being my first Cheap Trick album from the "dark ages", I'm glad to say rumours of the Trick's total creative death in the second half of the Eighties have been moderately exaggerated.

The biggest problem of this record is that it has 'The Flame'. And that 'The Flame' was a hit. Poor Tricksters, they actually hated the song themselves when they heard it, but you know those greedy managers - 'come on boys, you need a hit, we need a hit, this is gonna bring you back to power', the usual crap. Well, at least it was a hit, so they didn't sell themselves and get duped as well. But, of course, it's hardly anything more than a moronic, sappy, and gruesomely pretentious power ballad the only memorable thing about which is how Zander sweetly coos 'over you-u-u-u-u' in his best Roy Orbison impression. But does it justify five and a half minutes of this stream of rosey urine? Nadah.

However, good respectable people have been pouring shit over 'The Flame' for so long that they forgot the lead-in track here is not 'The Flame', but 'Let Go' - a perfectly harmless, and, in fact, energetic and infectious piece of power-pop, well-written, well-played, well-sung, and suffering only from the standard production excesses. How can you resist a song that opens with a guitar line so blatantly stolen from 'If I Needed Someone'? And then merges it with a totally different vocal melody, or, rather, three different slices of vocal melody, raising and raising in classic power pop fashion until the ultra-high 'let go let go' chorus sweeps all the sadness away? Geez, if we can enjoy classic Madonna hits, I see no reason why we should deny ourselves the pleasure of enjoying this little ditty. Heck, even that campy brass section that enters midway through is funny as hell.

Then there's also 'Never Had A Lot To Lose' - that song often gets singled out as the best on the album because it's the only one completely written by Cheap Trick on their own, and while I'd still give 'Let Go' the obvious edge, this one is also a pretty enjoyable pop-rocker which actually rocks out a bit more. In fact, in terms of "rock power" it is one of the two songs here that I could easily visualize as minor highlights on "classic" Trick albums. The second one is the album closer 'All Wound Up' - now this song, for some reason, never gets mentioned, and I have no idea why. It kicks ass! It's fast and it raises steam! Okay, it doesn't raise all that much steam while Zander is crooning the verse melody, but as soon as they go 'hey hey hey!' and make the transition into the 'you've got me all wound up - you're ready to go!' chorus, it's boogie heaven, with Nielsen actually letting go. And, by the way, one thing the new production values haven't mentioned to squeeze out of Trick is Nielsen's gruff style of rocking out: his solos still sound fresh and Seventies-like, no generic metal riffage a la Trevor Rabin here. This is rock'n'roll, baby, not robot'n'roll.

I'm also quite partial to 'Ghost Town'... sure it's also a rather formulaic power ballad, but this one actually has a decent melody attached to it, and Zander's weepy vocal delivery gets to me the way his by the book power-style on 'The Flame' never could. Nobody will ever be able to convince me that 'it's like a ghost town... until you come back to me' isn't an excellent resolution of the chorus. And finally, while their cover of Elvis' 'Don't Be Cruel' amounts to nothing more than a novelty, it's a listenable novelty. It's not like they're trying to play it on hi-tech synths or do an ELO-like rendition. It's just a piece of boogie - done adequately and with a fine rockabilly solo to boot. It's a different question why they actually chose to record it.

It's too bad the other five songs do nothing to justify the "comeback" claims. Besides 'The Flame', there's... well, let's see: 'No Mercy' is truly atrocious, something in between yet another power ballad and a synth-heavy Rod Stewart-like cock-rocker. They try to make it more down-to-earth with constant "swoops" of distorted guitars flying above the synth backup, but this makes for a very grating and artificial effect and only worsens the proceedings. 'Space' tries too hard to sound "tough", discredits itself with Zander openly proclaiming that he needs some, and comes off as either second-rate Duran Duran or third-rate Cars, whichever you prefer. And the other two songs on the second side are so sterile and lifeless I've forgotten what they sound like even if I only finished listening to the album like five minutes ago or so. In other words, it's a fuckin' lottery.

I guess the worst thing about this whole stuff is the album cover, isn't it? Boy, they sure went a long way from the fun beginnings of In Color. Actually, it's fun to compare the cover of Lap Of Luxury with the cover of Heaven Tonight and play the 'spot ten differences' game. Then, once you've spotted them all, these differences pretty much symbolize everything that made Seventies Cheap Trick so tricky and everything that made Eighties Cheap Trick so cheap.



Year Of Release: 2003
Overall rating = 10

By-the-book power pop - the texture is there but the soul is often dislocated.


Track listing: 1) Scent Of A Woman; 2) Too Much; 3) Special One; 4) Pop Drone; 5) My Obsession; 6) Words; 7) Sorry Boy; 8) Best Friend; 9) If I Could; 10) Low Life In High Heels; 11) Hummer.

I guess Cheap Trick's first new studio album since 1997 made the ol'-time fans a wee bit nervous, to put it mildly: would they be able to sustain the "comeback" of 1997, to make more rough 'n' gruff power pop in their classic style, or was that self-titled record merely a fluke? Well, the answer is here, and it's a positive one. In terms of style, Special One definitely continues the 'return to senses' period, and, for better or worse, announces that the New Old Cheap Trick are here to stay. When it comes to actual material, though, it's a different story.

But let's first dwell on the good news. If it's the sound you're concerned about, the sonic texture, the acoustic layout, the aural impact, the phonic aggression - well, in that case Special One is more than just "immaculate". It's a paradigm. It's a textbook on how to make a tasteful pop-rock record. It's actually hard to believe we're listening to the same band here that did all these cheese-a-thons in the late Eighties/early Nineties. The sound is basically bare-bones - the traditional Cheap Trick array of instruments we're used to, bass, drums, guitars, and next to no, or simply no keyboards anywhere in sight - and at the same time huge and overwhelming on almost every track. And the guitars are, well, guitars: distorted and frenetic in a Seventies' way when we need to rock, or acoustic, but actually playing real melodies, when we need to soften down. You could say there's a bit of grunge influence on here (which is only natural since Steve Albini is co-producer and engineer on quite a few of these tracks), but then again, Cheap Trick were grunge before grunge existed, so it's a big question who influenced who, really.

So, no complaints in that department. The problem is - the songwriting ain't too hot. And these two sides of the business are related - very much so. Way too often, I just get the feeling that the boys were much more concerned with establishing the right sonic pattern than with actually writing hook-filled songs, so much, in fact, that it is possible to believe they really brought in all these outside songwriters in the late Eighties because they lost their knack at songwriting, not because they didn't know how to fit in with the times and the consumers' tastes. These songs here, they sound great... but I dare you to remember any of them. A title like 'Pop Drone' is, in fact, quite telling: they are pop drones, magnificently done but very similar to each other.

Take something like 'Best Friend', for instance. It's not so much a well-written song as it is one big musical boom. For the first two minutes, the "song" is doing little but slowly growing in strength, with more and more distorted guitar layers slowly added up and Zander's vocals rising from a low-key Bowie-like murmur to classic all-out Cheap Trick screaming. And then the other two minutes it's just one massive sonic wave engulfing the listener: the screaming, the BIG guitars, Petersson's ultra-thick bass, Carlos' powerhouse drumming, plus these monotonous 'yeah yeah yeah' backing harmonies. No doubt about it, it's a great sound. It sweeps you away. But it's just not very interesting. And it's not like they haven't done this before, when it was not just powerful, but also fresh and full of youthful ecstasy whose purpose wasn't just to stand there and politely inform you 'Hi! I'm youthful ecstasy! Don't I rule?'

Granted, there are good songs here. They mostly come midway through. 'Words' opens and closes as this really emotional soft ballad, with a gracefully and curiously picked acoustic rhythm (based on a chord sequence not unlike Pete Townshend's 'Sunrise', but more rhythmic) pushing it forward and Zander giving a great 'tired' performance that, as usual, owns quite a bit of its charm to John Lennon. I could really do without the huge mid-section, though. 'My Obsession' is one of the few tunes that doesn't overwork the "rock it to death" formula and thus manages to put the melody before the arrangement, although, to tell the truth, the hooks there are not all that inspired.

A particular highlight for me is 'Sorry Boy' - I've seen some fans actually pan it as the record's one truly draggy number, but it boasts a special menace to it, with bass riffs and vocal snarls that don't just "rock" but actually "sneer", and thus hearkens back to the days of Heaven Tonight, when the Tricksters could not only come up with a great hook, but pack it with a special "biting punch" as well. And then there's the title track, built around a really sly, really tasty little riff (I still can't figure out the instrument... sounds either like a steel guitar or a mandolin to me, but it could as well be a Chinese qin for all I know), and building up really well - unlike 'My Best Friend', this song actually boasts a melody.

On the other hand, the album opener, 'Scent Of A Woman', is sort of an unlucky number. Lyrically, its pseudo-PC "pro-woman" message works about as well as all these declarations like 'It's A Man's Man's World' or 'Only Women Bleed' that seem to think they're deifying Woman but instead can be ironically summarized as "the woman is a man's best friend" kind of songs, and this seriously detracts from the actual melody, which is no great shakes either. And as for the rest of the songs, well, I've honestly tried to remember them, but I couldn't. I can frankly tell you I fully enjoyed listening to many of them, but none of them will ever make my top hundred of all time. Maybe that's because all of them are so defiantly mid-tempo? Wouldn't a little bit of boogie actually help? How about a 'Clock Strikes Ten' for the new millennium at least? Wouldn't that make the drones easier to tolerate?

I am, therefore, not ashamed to admit that since the very first listen to this record, I have gone through a whole bunch of subsequent ones with one main goal: to get through to the moment when Track 9 ends and Track 10 begins. Because the Tricksters at least partially redeem themselves by offering us a completely unexpected surprise at the end. As soon as the rather uninspired 'If I Could' fades from the horizon, the next thing you're hearing is Zander lighting up his cigarette and taking a short, but satisfied puff. Then he starts muttering: "Mmmm, mmmm, mmm-hmmm-hmmm". It takes you about ten seconds to realize he is muttering a melody, and just as you have proudly realised that, he is joined by Bun E., kicking in with a steady rhythm; then by Tom, weaving in a steady, unnerving, and heavy bass pattern; and then by Rick, chugging along bits and snippets of dry metallic riffage. And this initiates a seven-minute "jam"/"freakout"/"stupid joke" - I have no exact title for this - which is easily the best thing about this record. It's something the Tricksters have never done before and will hardly do ever after, and, in fact, it's something I don't recall anybody doing ever. It's simple and repetitive to an almost nauseating level, but it's so goddamn infectious, catchy, hard-rocking, and hilarious I can't imagine anybody shying away from what they will hear. In fact, the rising four-note riff Nielsen plays after each of Robin's 'take a good look, cuz I'm already gone' might just be the best Cheap Trick riff ever.

So it's at least nice to know they haven't lost their warped sense of humour. Now if only God came down from heaven tonight and taught them how to make records "in color" once again, whatever they'd be coming up for their next offering would be a late period masterpiece.


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