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! 

 

 

 

The Music of Cinemax’s Quarry Led Me To Big Star’s “#1 Record”

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I never used to watch much TV. Sure I watched my hapless Kansas City Chiefs over the years… actually I guess I can’t call them hapless any more. I’d watch the Olympics or whatever sporting event happened to be on at the time. When I was in college, after a big test I usually drank a bunch of beer and stared vacantly at the screen for hours while MTV played videos. Those were the days! These days “binge watching” has become a thing. The Rock Chick loves to binge watch television shows. Her tastes run toward the murder and mayhem type shows like, “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Sons of Anarchy.” While in the beginning I was a reluctant participant in all this TV viewing, I now enjoy watching these shows with her. I’m still not over “Breaking Bad.” That was a bad ass show.

In that tradition, the Rock Chick found this new show on Cinemax, “Quarry.” As usual, there’s murder and mayhem involved. The show is set in Memphis in 1972. That grabbed me right away because it’s a time in history that I’m obsessed with. The Nixon-McGovern election of that year looms in the background like a lurking villain. We follow our anti-hero Mac Conway as he returns from Vietnam where he was involved in some sort of controversial battle involving civilians. When I was a kid all the bad guys on TV were Vietnam vets which was a complete disservice to those brave young men who served in that conflict. Because of the controversy Mac faced in Vietnam he struggles to find a job. It’s then a mysterious figure named “The Broker” appears and offers him a job as a hit man. Mac drinks a shit ton of bourbon which of course, makes this a B&V approved television show.

While all of that backstory is interesting, what drew me into “Quarry” (besides the bourbon drinking, Four Roses!) was the music. The early 70s was such a fertile time for music. Rock and roll, country, soul, blues, R&B were all so commingled. Mac, our hero, is a huge Otis Redding fan which fantastic. The sound track for this show is amazing. Since it’s set in Memphis you get a lot of blues and R&B. Mac also digs gospel so you get some Soul Stirrers among others. They’ve played everything from Harry Nilsson singing in Spanish to Waylon Jennings to Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey.” Whoever is DJ’ing down at the “Quarry” studios knows what he’s doing. The music is great and it always fits the scene.

While all that is great, since this is a show about a hitman, Mac is often meeting his mysterious cohorts in a bar or a club where live music is being played. Memphis is a great town for live music. Having been thrown out of the Rum Boogie Cafe back in the 80s for attempting to play an organ solo when drunk on the dance floor, I can testify to Memphis’ great musical traditions. Reaching through the crowd and pressing down on the organ keys was not greeted very nicely and I do regret that. Anyway, the bar bands that play in the background in this show are worth the price of admission alone. You add these great bands playing with the actual soundtrack and you have one great musical atmosphere. Add it all up, murder, mayhem, bourbon and music and you’ve got one kick ass show.

There is one band that gets mentioned, almost as a background undercurrent in the show, Big Star. This being Memphis in 1972, when their seminal LP “#1 Record” came out it only makes sense. Mac, the Otis Redding fan, comes home to find his wife Joni, (played by the lovely Jodi Balfour, who based on her nudes scenes, I feel is going to be a huge star) listening to Big Star. It’s not the only thing that’s changed while Mac’s been away. Joni is a journalist and her first article, which she mails to Mac while he’s in Vietnam is a write up about Big Star. In one great scene, Mac whose just polished off a bottle of Four Roses is lying in the middle of their living room, surrounded by LPs scattered around the floor (and who hasn’t been there friends?) is listening to the great tune “Don’t Lie to Me.”

I’ve always been a huge fan of rock journalism and Rolling Stone magazine in particular. Inevitably there’s some countdown of the greatest albums of all time. I’ve always sneered at some of the choices. There are always the bands Television and Big Star amongst others that no one seems to have heard. I’ve always blown those bands off, although 20 years ago I did get into the Velvet Underground and they just kick ass. Like the Velvet Underground apparently what few fans Big Star had went out and formed bands. Mike Mills from REM wrote the liner notes to the latest re-issue of “#1 Record.” When I heard “Don’t Lie To Me” I thought, wait a minute, maybe this is worth listening to.

Big Star suffered from a terrible record label and a complete lack of distribution for their records which was their death knell. They formed in Memphis in ’72 by Alex Chilton (who had been a childhood star) and Chris Bell, both singer/guitarists. They’ve been described as “power pop,” or “pop rock” but I think they rock. The Rock Chick hears a little April Wine in their music, I really don’t know how to categorize them. I have to admit, after sneering at Big Star all these years, I was wrong. “#1 Record” is simply put, amazing. These guys are hard to describe. Beatlesque might apply. When I put this LP on last night, I walked back into the living room to find the Rock Chick up on her feet, snapping her fingers and nodding her head. That doesn’t happen all the time. This stuff is catchy as hell.

“Feel” is the first song and right off the bat I’m hooked. Chiming, rocking guitars and beautiful vocal harmonies abound. If that’s power pop I’m in. “In The Street” and “Don’t Lie to Me” are great rocking tunes. The ballad “Thirteen” about young love is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful songs I’ve ever heard… it stirred up some bittersweet ghosts for me. “When My Baby’s Beside Me” is another terrific rocker with a great riff. These songs get under your skin and stay with you. I find myself humming or singing these songs in my head. “The India Song” is weird, trippy and funny all at the same time. “My Life Is Right” should have been a hit. I love the sound of the acoustic guitar these guys get on the quieter tunes. Really great strumming and it calls to mind Zeppelin’s “Tangerine.”

All these years later, it’s time to give Big Star a chance folks. This is great music that deserves to be heard by everybody. BourbonAndVinyl gives “#1 Record” a very enthusiastic  “Buy Now” review.

Put this one on, pour some Four Roses and thank me later. And when you’re done listening, tune into “Quarry” if only to see Jodi Balfour…

Cheers!