Cheap Trick’s new studio album, The Latest, released last week on the band’s own record label, (Cheap Trick Unlimited), should dispel any notion that that the group is planning to ride off into the sunset as a creative, vibrant, and relevant force in rock and roll anytime soon. Delivering a solid collection of inspired, well-crafted songs, The Latest ranks as one of the best compact discs I’ve heard this year, and one of the most balanced and cohesive performances of their lengthy career. If you thought this iconic 1970s “power pop” band would never rise to the occasion and produce another gem, then guess again. This is a really fine record by the band that Rick Nielsen once referred to jokingly as the “two good looking guys” (Robin Zander and Tom Petersson) and the “two ugly guys” (Nielsen and Bun E. Carlos).
In fact, the musicianship and songwriting found on The Latest shows that the individual members of Cheap Trick (Robin Zander, lead vocals, guitar and keyboards; Rick Nielsen, lead guitar, keyboards, and vocals; Tom Petersson, bass, keyboards, and vocals; and Bun E. Carlos, drums, percussion, and vocals), continue to mature and grow as musicians. Robin Zander’s voice is still very strong and powerful. In my opinion, Zander is one of rock and roll’s great singers of all time. The thing that makes Zander so good is his great versatility and range. At 56 years old, Zander can still belt out a rock song without sounding harsh. On the other hand, his high tenor can also provide a soft and sweet falsetto when necessary. As a singer, he seems to instinctively develop just the right phrasing for a ballad, even if he had nothing to do with writing it (“The Flame”). Interestingly, Zander’s role as a songwriter within the band has grown substantially with each album released since the late 1980s.
Rick Nielsen’s guitar playing on the album is fluid and consistent with the style he has developed and honed during his tenure with the group. For the most part, his guitar riffs have a slightly over driven tone. He leads the band with his powerful rhythm playing. He adds insightful and playful lead guitar lines on the cover of Slade’s “When the Lights Are Out”. It is an enjoyable, toe tapping number that harkens back to the 1970s glam rock made famous by David Bowie. Cheap Trick songs in the past have often been dismissed by some as being fun without much substance. However, one could also make the argument that sometimes a song should be judged on how it makes you feel when you hear it, rather than whether it makes the greatest lyrical statement of all time. After all, rock and roll, in its purest form, is often at its best when the subject matter isn’t overly serious.
“Miss Tomorrow” was originally penned by Zander and Dave Stewart as a demo for Zander’s fine solo album that was released in the early 1990s. It was not included on that record, but it fits in well with the rest of the tunes on this one. It starts off slowly, but then it evolves into a mid-tempo rocker with an infectious hook at the chorus. “Sick Man of Europe” is a pop-punk song that features Tom Peterson’s bass at the forefront. It clocks in at about two minutes. One thing you will find about the record in general is that some of the songs are very brief (under 3:00 minutes). Although that brevity seems appropriate for a few songs, in some cases you are left wanting more.
“These Days” is a wonderful, evocative, and memorable power ballad. “Miracle” is another ballad that seems like it has the feel of a tune that would have fit in well on John Lennon’s Imagine album. Time and time again, Zander has proven himself to be a good student of the Lennon and McCartney style of singing (“Day Tripper”, “Magical Mystery Tour”), and he’s still doing it quite well here, making the honor roll on a number of these new tracks.
“California Girl” is a fine song written as a tip of the hat to Little Richard/Eddie Cochran 50s style rock. It has sort of a “Sun Studios” Memphis rockabilly groove. The band is able to punch out a good rock and roll song with seemingly routine precision, featuring Zander’s more than ample vocal chops and displaying the band’s own versatility. Nielsen and Carlos are completely in sync on this rave up. None of this should come as any real surprise, though. This is a band that rearranged Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” and introduced it to a whole generation of young rock fans by raising the tempo a few notches and adding some pounding drums and fiery guitar playing.
Producer Julian Raymond pays homage to the band’s traditional sonic mixing style, which is to find a comfortable volume for the guitars on the left and right side of the mix, and then taking the guitars up another step up and funneling everything else to the center to create a Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” effect that the casual listener can’t ignore. This album also has the answering background vocals and Beatles’ style harmonies that have been omnipresent on the group’s earlier work.
Bun E. Carlos continues to do what he always has done — to just play the parts that a song requires; nothing more, nothing less. Tom Petersson is the perfect complement to Carlos for the rhythm section, with his unique 12-string bass sound. Since the band has been asked to perform the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in its entirety in Las Vegas in September of this year, the group had access to a string orchestra for rehearsals. While those rehearsals were taking place, they put the string section to good use on some of the songs on this record. In most cases, the strings enhances the arrangements, providing additional variety and textures that have not appeared on a Cheap Trick album since George Martin worked with the group in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Dream Police and Stop This Game).
While this record as a whole is very good, it is by no means perfect. There is some filler here. “Smile” comes off as an over the top, excessively sugar coated sappy ballad, and “Everyday You Drive Me Crazy” is a short, reworked version of a Pepsi Cola jingle. I can’t see the merits of “Everyday”, but at least it goes by quickly. “Sleep Forever” is a eulogy for a friend and employee of the band who passed away suddenly. Taken in that context, I can understand why the band wanted that song to be included. Nevertheless, it may have improved the overall flow of the record if it had been included as the final song of the set, rather than the first one.
There is no doubt that Cheap Trick has a very loyal and supportive fan base. And “The Latest” surely will be welcomed by the most loyal followers of the group. This music should also serve as a good addition to the old familiar hits, such as “Surrender” (which Green Day is performing as an encore in their live shows) and “I Want You to Want Me”. But most importantly, since Cheap Trick has been cited as an inspiration to many contemporary musicians, including Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins and Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, among others), this particular record could gain favor with fans of those bands, too. It might grow on them, if given the chance. Yes, it’s only rock and roll, but I like it.
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