Review: Cheap Trick, ‘In Another World’ – The Solid But Predictable New LP

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It’s strange these days when I read anything about Cheap Trick. They are forty-plus years into a career but invariably every article about them or review of their music now describes them as being “power pop” or “pop rock.” Usually the article goes on to compare them to Big Star. Apparently the term power pop is defined as ” a form of pop rock based on the early music of bands such as the Who, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Byrds.” It was apparently coined by Pete Townshend to describe the Who’s music in the mid 60s. My fandom of rock music runs about as long as Cheap Trick’s career. I started listening to rock music in roughly 1978, so I was a year behind their debut LP. I know a lot about rock n roll but I still can’t identify which music is considered “power pop.” I think it’s just rock n roll that is more melodic with perhaps an eye toward the charts? I think it’s funny that critics fall all over themselves to mention Big Star as a reference point… in the mid-70s I think only five people knew who Big Star were and four were in the band…I certainly didn’t learn anything about Big Star until the series ‘Quarry’ on Showtime…and that was embarrassingly recent.

I was turned onto Cheap Trick the same way most people were: their smokin’ live album At Budokan (which naturally made our list of greatest live LPs). I first heard that record on 8-track tape, gads. To think they weren’t going to release that album except as a small promotional thing in Japan. Like Tom Waits sings, they were indeed “Big In Japan.” To me, Cheap Trick – Rick Nielsen, guitar; Robin Zander, vocals; Tom Petersson, bass; Bun E. Carlos, drums) – were just a straightforward rock band. Based on At Budokan alone I would have said they played garage rock. Although – and this also gets mentioned in every review or article (because it’s true) – they were very Beatlesque. You could tell from the jump that these guys were heavily influenced by the Beatles. On their debut, eponymous album they reworked the Beatles’ “Taxman” as “Mr. Taxman, Mr. Thief.” They even went on to hire legendary Beatles’ producer George Martin to produce the album Dream Police. One could be forgiven for thinking the term “Beatlesque” was invented just to describe Cheap Trick… which is wrong, it was probably invented to describe E.L.O. (the Electric Light Orchestra, the band most shamelessly derivative of the Beatles). 

To me, Cheap Trick always had a bit of a split personality. And I’m not just talking about how they’d put Zander and Petersson (the good looking guys) on the album covers and stick Bun E. Carlos and Rick Nielsen (the goofy looking guys) on the back cover. A strategy I’ve always felt worked for our annual Christmas card… the Rock Chick on the front, me on the back…but I digress. I’ve always felt Cheap were also musically a bit of a split personality. On the one hand you had muscular, guitar riff driven songs. Rick Nielsen looked like the cartoon rendering of a runaway accountant with his big-billed ball caps and multi-necked guitar but he’s a great guitarist and songwriter. He wrote tough rocking riffs. On the other hand you had these, yes, Beatlesque, melodic tunes. Zander’s multi tracked vocals could pull off those sunny harmonies the Fab Four were so fond of and adept at. They drench those tunes in strings. Personally, I’ve always liked their more rock-oriented tunes… which comes as a surprise to exactly no one… 

Cheap Trick, for good or bad, are defined by their first four or five LPs. They had a pretty damn good run at the beginning: Cheap Trick (1977), In Color (believe it or not, 1977 also), my favorite of their albums Heaven Tonight (1978), the live At Budokan (1978) and finally the George Martin produced Dream Police (1979). Everything they’ve done since then gets compared to that stretch of music. After those albums, things went up and down for Cheap Trick. They kept touring and recording albums. Occasionally they’d have a hit like “She’s Tight,” “The Flame” or “Can’t Stop Falling Into Love” but they never seemed to have that consistent success that they’d experienced in their late 70s heyday. But, they kept “keeping on” as the saying goes. I know a lot of people who own some version of Cheap Trick’s greatest hits. 

It was 2006 when a friend turned me onto Cheap Trick’s then-latest record, Rockford. That album was a real return to form. It’s top-notch, start to finish. It marked the beginning of a strong, rebirth era for Cheap Trick. Since that time they’ve put out a series of strong albums. Sadly, 2009’s The Latest was the end of Bun E. Carlos’ tenure in the band. They hired Rick Nielsen’s son Daxx (yeah, who would hang that moniker on their son?) to play drums. He made his debut on 2016’s Bang, Zoom, Crazy…Hello. To me it felt like with Daxx behind the drum kit, the band rocked a little harder. They seemed to be leaning back to that lean and hungry early sound. This “renaissance” for Cheap Trick reached full flower on 2017’s We’re All Alright!, one of our earliest reviews here on B&V. Cheap Trick’s latter day albums were the kind of music that I started this blog to evangelize. We’re All Alright! stands amongst their best work, period. 

Although I must admit, We’re All Alright! recalibrated my expectations for Cheap Trick. Which leads me to their new record, In Another World, which I’ve been listening to constantly since it dropped last Friday. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good, solid Cheap Trick record. However, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed after We’re All Alright! which was a GREAT Cheap Trick record. Apparently In Another World was recorded over 2018 and 2019 for release in the dreaded 2020 but was delayed because of COVID. There are some great moments on this album. 

It opens with a rocker, “The Summer Looks Good On You,” which I’ll have to immediately add to my Summer/Sun playlist. While “Summer Looks Good On You” is a rocker, it’s got those Beatlesque flourishes as well. Its drenched in strings and vocal harmonies such that it wouldn’t be out of place on Abbey Road side 2. “Boys And Girls and Rock And Roll” and “The Party” are also tough punchy rock songs. I really like the guitar on the first of those tracks. “Light The Fire,” reviewed earlier on B&V, remains the pick of the litter here. Zander’s vocal is unhinged on that song. The guy sings like a man half his age. “Here’s Looking At You” is another great rock song. “Final Days” is an ominous, creepy rocker with big choruses and some well-placed harmonica. 

Cheap Trick do mix it up a bit as well. “Passing Through” has spooky backing vocal and a vaguely Moroccan feel. “So It Goes” is an interesting acoustic-guitar driven ballad that has a touch of a psychedelic vibe. I will admit the track didn’t grab me at first but grew on me with repeated listens. “Another World” is a strong power ballad with a great guitar solo. 

I will admit there are some clunkers here. The second track on the album, “Quit Waking Me Up,” (which for this insomniac was a title that held a lot of promise) with all of its horns leaves me utterly cold. It’s almost campy… I kept waiting for Anthony Newley to prance out on stage surrounded by go-go girls. On “Another World – Reprise” they employ one of the most annoying backing vocals I’ve ever heard. “I’ll See You Again” is a dirge like ballad that misses the mark for me. It sounds more like a Coke commercial from the late 60s than Beatlesque. They indulge their Beatles fetish most fully on their cover of John Lennon’s solo track “Gimme Some Truth.” I like Lennon’s original, but I thought it was questionable to add it here. I mean, I get it – in this age of misinformation and craziness, we’d all like some Truth. The tune name checks Tricky Dick Nixon… it just felt dated. And that is coming from someone who likes Beatles covers

When Cheap Trick is on, they’re very very good, like they are on “Light The Fire” or “Boys and Girls and Rock and Roll.” I found this album slightly uneven and a bit predictable but still worthy of a few spins. I’d urge everyone to check out the highlights I’ve mentioned above. In Another World is a solid effort and these guys should be applauded for rocking out this hard this far down the road. We need more music like this in the world. I think this is a sign 2021 is going to be really good year for rock and roll. 

Cheers! 

 

 

 

Cheap Trick: Incendiary New Single, “Light Up The Fire” From the Upcoming LP ‘In Another World’

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In the late 70s when Cheap Trick was at their true zenith, I was in junior high school. As the 80s dawned, I began my mostly mediocre high school years. When I was in junior high school everybody rode the bus to school. I suppose there were some kids who were close enough to walk, but my junior high was way over by the Kansas-Missouri border and so every day I begrudgingly boarded the bus. Finally as summer of 1979 waned, I became a high schooler. The main difference between junior high and high school, other than the sheer size of the place, at least for me at the time was that you didn’t have to ride the bus. You could drive a car, catch a ride with someone else in their car, or I suppose you could ride a bike if you were that sort of person…and I didn’t know that sort of person when I was in high school. 

I desperately wanted to drive to school. There was only one small problem. My parents wouldn’t let me get near a car. I knew how to drive, I’d been driving their car for years. It wasn’t like they’d have me drive up to the convenience store for beer and cigarettes or anything weird like that but we’d go out to the country when visiting relatives and they’d let me drive. In those years, especially oddly in junior high I was a bit of a…well… hellion. I’d actually mellowed out a little bit by high school, but I’d never get any credit for that from my parents… not now and especially not then. Since my misadventures typically involved beer drinking of some sort my parents were extremely apprehensive about allowing me to drive a car, any car. Looking back I secretly suspect my father just didn’t want to help me buy a car. I still wonder if they thought I was going to down a six-pack on the way to school… I mean, who drinks beer in the morning in high school? That’s clearly a college level gig. 

This situation left me sadly standing at the bus stop when high school rolled around. I’m not ever going to say only “losers” rode the bus because well, I was riding the bus, but it was a tough crowd. I watched two guys get into a fist fight on the bus one day… they were arguing about whether or not Hendrix, were he still alive, would have gone “jazz” and abandoned rock n roll. While the fight was crazy, I have to admit it was a subject worth fighting for. There was a guy at my bus stop who later went down for murder. Seriously, he killed a guy. That was the bus stop. I’m a lover not a fighter, I was lost in that crowd. A few weeks into high school this guy I knew, who I’ll call “Jimbo” stopped in his green VW bug and said, “What are you doing, get in.” And like that, I was rescued from the yellow hell. He came by my house every day and drove me to school. Alas, Jimbo moved to Oklahoma early in that sophomore year. That wasn’t before we’d wrecked the green VW bug… because of well, beer.  Don’t drink and drive folks. Learn from Springsteen’s mistake. 

Luckily, I had another friend, an industrious guy who always had a job, who I’ll call Brewster. Brewster owned a Monza. I think he bought it with his own cash. Shortly after Jimbo moved I was leaving my house one morning, bummed out, headed back to the bus stop and back to the yellow exile. I was quietly  hoping that there’d be no Hendrix “discussions” that morning as I was tired. When to my surprise, up pulls Brewster in his Monza. He’s got a couple other dudes in the car. Our friend RW was there and I think there were like seven guys named Steve who road along too. That’s how I remember it but that would have had to have been a huge Monza. In my defense, 90% of the people I knew in high school were named Steve so I get confused. After that, Brewster picked me up every school day morning. Oddly there was never a discussion about it. There was never a, “Hey, you can ride with me,” or “Get in” moment like with Jimbo. Every now and again my mom would slip me cash and I’d give it to Brewster for gas money. These were the “Cash, grass or ass” days so I wanted to get that money on the table early. Since there was never a discussion, occasionally if Brewster was sick, I’d be left standing at my front door. My mom was always super pissed, “Can you guys not communicate this stuff?” Alas, Brewster was never a wordy type of guy back then. 

Most days found me riding along happily in the Monza. I was tall so they’d let me ride up front most days. RW and the Steves would all ride in back. The best part of riding to school in the Monza was Brewster had sprung for a good stereo that played 8-track tapes. For those you unfamiliar with 8-tracks, Google them. They were the most confounding musical delivery system ever. Brewster had a recently new live album that we’d listen to almost every day on our way to school by a band called Cheap Trick. The album was called Cheap Trick at Budokan. We all knew it simply by the title “Live At Budokan.” I had only been vaguely familiar with Cheap Trick up to that point but man did we love that live LP. Although since we were listening on 8-track tape, it was years before I actually knew the running order of the songs on the record. It was like it was on random. I never figured that thing out. “I Want You To Want Me,” and “Surrender” were the big tracks but there wasn’t a bad moment on that LP… it easily made my list of “Essential Live Albums,” BourbonAndVinyl Comes Alive: The Epic List Of Essential Live Albums

Needless to say I was a big Cheap Trick fan early on and remained so even after that late 70s – early 80s heyday. By the early 90s their albums had become a tad inconsistent. They always seemed to have a stray hit or two, even in the low points. Since then there have been a number of albums that were hailed as their “comeback album.” Starting with 2006’s Rockford, which was superb, I found myself interested again. After all these years Cheap Trick still has almost all of their original members: Robin Zander on lead vocals, Rick Nielsen on guitars and Tom Petersson on bass. Original drummer Bun E. Carlos has left the band rather acrimoniously and was replaced with Nielsen’s son Daxx. At least they kept it in the family. Their last album (not including a xmas album) We’re All Alright! was another triumph (LP Review: Cheap Trick’s ‘We’re All Alright!’ – Pure, Rock Delight

Cheap Trick have returned in 2021 with a new single, “Light Up The Fire” from an upcoming album In Another World. I’ve gotta tell you, I love the new track. “Light Up The Fire” just simply rocks. I was playing it one day and the Rock Chick wandered into the B&V Lab and said, “Wow, these guys are rocking.” Cheap Trick do so many things well. There’s obviously a Beatles’ influence in a lot of their music. I would say, now that I’ve discovered Big Star, there is also a huge influence there as well. Call it power pop or rock that feels pop-y, call it whatever you want Cheap Trick can do it. But one thing I don’t think they get enough credit for is how much they just flat out rock. I hated to see Bun E. Carlos go, but ever since Daxx Nielsen has taken over the kit, these guys have leaned a little harder into the rocking stuff.

I would be remiss not to call out Zander’s almost unhinged lead vocal. That was what first caught the Rock Chick’s ear. The track starts off with a fuzzy bass and then the drums and guitar kick in. Its’ galloping along when Zander’s yelp comes in. “So light up the fire, but don’t burn my love to the ground.” Oh, hell yes. Nielsen does his usual manic guitar work here. The solo feels buttery slippery but powerful and its all anchored by such a solid rhythm section. Daxx and Tom aren’t flashy but they’re in the pocket. This is a full-out, fun, race me to the finish line rocker. If you like Cheap Trick’s harder rocking stuff, this will fill the bill. 

I am extremely  hopeful this is a great kick off to a great album and what could be a great 2021 musically. I’d heard rumors they had this album done a year ago but held off release because of Covid. If so, I’m glad its finally seeing the light of day. It’s great to hear the Rock Hall of Fame stalwarts come out guns blazing to start off our year. It’s certainly a hopeful sign for the Rock New Year. I’ll be keeping my eye out for this album, for sure! 

Be safe out there! Cheers!