Spend any length of time in Rockford, Illinois (five minutes longer than it takes to fill your gas tank and buy a Red Bull, say), and the miracle that is Cheap Trick becomes even more astounding. How could this gray and uninspiring burg nurture America's longest-standing hard-pop band? It's a rock-&-roll enigma, one which the band itself compounds by naming their newest disc after their hometown.
Listening to Rockford (Big3 Records), their most solid small label album after over a decade of dithering for the big boys, and it's like only a year's lapsed 'tween this and their last peak era album, Dream Police. The disc even opens with an intro number a lá "ELO Kiddies" or "Hello There" – only swollen maybe thirty seconds past its usefulness – before settling into the poppy rocking groove fans know and love.
Where most 70's hard-rock outfits looked to the Stones and Zep for their blues-based riff (think Aerosmith), chief Trickster Rick Nielsen wisely took his inspiration from more diverse musical catalogs like the Beatles and Move. This fount of tunefulness may be one of the keys to the band's commendable longevity – that or the fact that mega-voiceman Robin Zander has a Dorian Gray painting of himself stashed somewhere.
In any event, Rockford remains a damn fine slice of pop-rock: as rhythmically solid as the band has ever been. (Though I had to admit, I felt a slight qualm when redoubtable drummer Bun E. Carlos started playing 'round with the tempo to "Give It Away.") It's packed with lots of lightly off-kilter Nielsen guitar fingering and still as capable of inserting canny sweet harmonies and synth swoops into the speed work. The first single is the second track, "Perfect Strangers," written in collaboration with former 4 Non-Blond Linda Perry, but the song that first yanked me off my desk chair was "Come On Come On Come On," a racing entreaty that's as infectious as anything off of Heaven Tonight.
Other highlights include "If It Takes A Lifetime" (divine Liverpudlian chorus on this one), "This Time You Got It," a buck-up song in the tradition of "Everything Works If You Let It," "Dream the Night Away" (no Dream Police gumming things up this time!), and the rousing nasty outro "Decaf." Nielsen even resurrects a joke title from the early tour days, "O Claire," and fleshes it into a great proto-psychedelic swoon. S'like it's 1977 all over again, kids…
Cheap Trick endures – and more power-(pop) to 'em. Will Rockford bring this band of former FM heavyweights into the spotlight once more? Doubtful, but then stranger career revivals have happened over the years. That these guys keep on keeping on – refusing to turn into an oldies act and still churning out fresh & crunchy ear candy – is cheering all by itself. Perhaps that's the true secret of grim ol' Rockford: only way you can survive the town for the long haul is to stay sequestered in the studio, channeling the heavenly sounds of pop gods past.