Thursday, August 22, 2019

Catching Up with Cheap Trick: 'We're All Alright!' (2017)

"I wish Cheap Trick would take less time between albums in this later stage of their career."

"I kinda wish they'd also make one more album where, like on their debut, they stick pretty close to loud-and-fast songs."

These are thoughts I've had prior to the 2017 release of We're All Alright!.  Given that, it's fitting that the first of several cliches we're about to discuss is "be careful what you wish for."  Because they did both of those things with this album and, well...

To be honest, I've known for a while that I'd eventually have to come back to this blog and at least update the Cheap Trick reviews.  For as long as I've known that, I've also known that (a) that meant writing this review and (b) that would be a bit of a bummer.  Because this is where the bragging rights end: prior to the release of We're All Alright!, Cheap Trick had been on one hell of a late-career renaissance.  Beginning with 1997's self-titled reboot, they may not have been the world's most prolific recording act, but they had been consistent as hell.  Sure, I have my favorites (Rockford) and a bit-less-favorites (The Latest) from their later years, but those are very relative judgments.  As a proud fan, I loved to crow about how no other classic-rawk band had re-found themselves creatively as gloriously as Cheap Trick had in the back half of their career.

And then they went and did this.

As with Bang Zoom Crazy...Hello, let's talk about the brilliant stuff first.  First off, there's that beauty of an album cover.  The collage art is spectacular, and deserves to be seen in all its 12x12 + gatefold vinyl glory.  It's probably worth the price even if you don't have a turntable.  Just fantastic.  Hell, I don't even like this album all that much but I still bought the t-shirt.

Musically, there's "Like a Fly".  First-rate song, feels like a belated follow-up to Rockford's excellent closer "Decaf", and captures much of what I love about this band.  "The Rest of My Life" is similarly gripping, pondering love and the difference between "the rest of my life" (which exists for sure) and "forever" (which may or may not).  Both songs are heavy, intelligent stuff that's sadly out of place with the remainder of the album, but would be right at home at at most other points in their discography.  I'm thrilled that they exist and saw commercial release.  Nothing else here is nearly of the same caliber, but take those two and add "Long Time Coming", "Nowhere", "Brand New Name on an Old Tattoo",  and maybe the horribly titled "If You Still Want My Love" and you've got a nice, serviceable EP.

"Well that's not so bad - you just named about half the album, right?"  I suppose so, but the rest of this is just so unexpectedly lousy that it's really hard to know what to say.  The bad half of this album is sort of like having a beloved uncle whose company you always look forward to.  Then he flies in for some random holiday, gets far too drunk, and completely out of nowhere starts bellowing loudly about how HOT AND SEXY the stewardesses on his flight were.  And he won't stop.  And he's getting louder.  And WHERE THE FUCK DID THIS COME FROM ANYWAY?

Seriously, folks.  The first song on this thing is called "You Got it Going On."  Are you fucking kidding me?  HEY SOCCER MOMS, WE'RE HIP AND AVAILABLE!  Sweet Jesus, is it ever horrible and pandering.  The worst thing about is that it's just a warm up for the lyrical bed-shitting to come.  In "She's Alright" (well, maybe she is but you guys sure ain't), we learn that "she comes and then she goes", and that's just alright with them!  In "Listen to Me" (good god, please don't), we get to hear Robin Zander utter the unforgettable lyric "Look at my hands...look at the size!" with all the smarm he can muster.  Fucking wonderful.  I mean, I get why bands bring in song doctors to help out when the inspiration starts to run dry, but why in the hell did Cheap Trick hire Beavis and Butthead to do the heavy lifting on this one?

But as awful as all of that is, it all pales in comparison to "Lolita."  That's right, this shit-fest has a song called "Lolita."  I...I just....I fucking just can't.  I have NO WORDS AT ALL to describe the awe-inspiring magna-turd of this song.  Seriously: go stream it somewhere (I tried to embed it but, wisely, it isn't on YouTube in unadulterated form).  All you detractors of The Doctor and all of you who'd rather not "Ride the Pony" are just a bit further up the creek now, because THIS.  IS.  THE.  BOTTOM.  OF.  THE.  BARREL.  Unquestionably their single worst song ever by any reasonable standard.  Congratulations, I guess?

Sigh.  I'd still rate Busted a bit lower, but all jokes and hyperventilating aside, it breaks my heart that they broke such a hot streak with what is for me their second-to-worst album.  Even among the good songs, there's not a whole lot of creative health here: sure, I like "Long Time Coming" and "Nowhere" for the AC/DC and Ramones pastiches that they respectively are, but that's not much to hang an album on from an artistic perspective.

The key word for this album is confusing.  The playing is as top-notch as the material is sub-standard, and Zander continues to sing incredibly well.  The band sounds enthusiastic and engaged, like they could do this for years and years to come.  Their commitment to no longer waiting an eternity between albums is truly admirable.  But honestly, I'd have been happy to wait another year for this album if it lead to higher quality songwriting and many, many lyrical revisions.  The cliched rawk-dude misogyny on display throughout too much of this album is flat-out depressing, coming as it does from a band who once went out of their way to turn that sort of shit on its ear.  Many of these songs represent a long, hard thematic drop from the likes of "He's a Whore", "On Top of the World" or even "The Rest of My Life" from this very album, songs that treated sex and relationships as the three-dimensional, complicated things that they really are.  I sincerely hope it's an impermanent one - they've had these awkward, pandering little hiccups here and there before (lookin' at you, "Younger Girls", for example), but never for this much of an album.

TL;DR: Their second-worst album, featuring a handful of keepers mired in an impenetrable swamp of recycled riffs and cliched, horribly dumbed-down, sometimes misogynistic lyrics.  The performances are great, but the creative inspiration is barely palpable.  Ain't that a shame.

COLLECTOR GEEK ASIDE: For some bizarre reason probably known only to the marketing team over at the Big Machine Label Group, the CD and streaming/downloadable versions of We're All Alrght! exist in both a basic 10-track edition and a "deluxe" 13-track edition.  Obviously, this review is of the 13-track deluxe, as "Like a Fly" isn't even on the 10-tracker.  The vinyl only exists in the 13-track configuration.  Your guess is as good as mine as to why or for whom the 10-track version even exists.

The Japanese CD expands to 15 tracks with spirited live versions of "When I Wake Up Tomorrow" and "The In Crowd" from Bang Zoom Crazy...Hello.  Worth hearing for die-hards, if not necessarily buying as an expensive import.

Catching Up with Cheap Trick: 'Bang Zoom Crazy...Hello' (2016)

I suppose there's no other way to truly plug this blog back in than to revisit one of its longest-running obsessions - and since it's not close enough to the Christmas Season to reopen that can of worms, we might as well catch up with the three - count 'em! - albums that Cheap Trick has released since my original Trick Tuesday series of album reviews wrapped up.

Released on the eve of their 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction - and yes, I know we'll need to discuss that as well, but one thing at a time - this one was a long time coming.  Indeed, the gap between this and its predecessor, 2009's good-songs-but-awkwardly-sequenced The Latest, was the longest between studio albums in the band's career.  Lawsuits and acrimony will do that for you, I suppose.

Bang Zoom Crazy...Hello was a lot of things: their first album without Bun E. Carlos on drums, their first album on a large, powerful record label since 1994, and (likely not coincidentally) their first album to make the Billboard Top 40 since 1988's Lap of Luxury.

Coinciding with all the Hall of Fame hype, it's probably safe to say that Bang Zoom Crazy...Hello was the first new Cheap Trick record that a fair number of folks heard in a very long time.  What they got to hear was solid: not quite exceptional on the level of a latter-day triumph like 2006's Rockford, but entertaining and well-made.  For me, it's most similar to One on One in terms of its place in the Cheap Trick canon: this close to a top-shelf album, one that I like and listen to a lot, but if I'm being honest, not quite there.

Let's start with the brilliant stuff: a cover of '60s rock classic "The In Crowd" manages to capture the off-kilter, slightly menacing vibe of the band's timeless debut album as though thirty-nine years had somehow not passed between the two recordings.  That, dear readers, is no small feat.  Likewise, "All Strung Out", the album's endearingly oddball closing track, is just the kind of weirdness that the album as a whole could have done with a bit more of.

What's largely lacking here, and what keeps this as a very-very-good-but-not-quite-great album, is lyrical personality.  Most of these lyrics aren't quite bad, although that "my balls in my pocket" line from the otherwise great opener "Heart on the Line" always makes me squirm a bit, but they do feel like they could have come from the collective pens of nearly any classic-rock band in their later years.  They're anonymous; for the most part, they take up space, and that's about all.  It's not a fatal flaw for the album as a whole by any stretch, but it is a small disappointment for a word-nerd - and a fan of Cheap Trick's classic cleverness and love of unusual lyrical topics - like me.

That said, if lyrics don't mean as much to you, you might want to pull this one up to the "A" shelf after all.  Musically, it's solid, well-paced and nicely diverse, with no glaring filler.  The heavier tracks ("Do You Believe Me?", "Roll Me", the aforementioned "Heart on the Line") sit nicely next to the sort of power-pop these guys dream up so effortlessly ("No Direction Home", "The Sun Never Sets", "Long Time No See Ya").  Elsewhere, a few changes-of-pace work exceptionally well: the brooding, Bowie-esque "When I Wake Up Tomorrow", the unusually glammy and wholly wonderful "Blood Red Lips" and the oh-my-god-it's-country-ish-but-it works "Sing My Blues Away" keep the album feeling unpredictable without seeming forced.

The elephant in the room sits behind the drums, of course.  Daxx Nielsen acquits himself just fine on his first studio album.  Make no mistake: Bun E. Carlos' signature swing is missing here.  Daxx is more of a hard-hitting, straight-ahead hard-rock drummer, and never leads the band the way his celebrated predecessor did.  That's just fine: the album is better for Daxx playing in his own style than it would have been had he done a doomed-to-fail impersonation of Bun E.  What happened between the band members is unfortunate, but Daxx turns out to be the next best thing in the best possible way.  And so it goes for Bang Zoom Crazy...Hello as a whole: it's just barely not quite a brilliant Cheap Trick album, but it's the next best thing in the best possible way.

TL;DR: it's a B++ album that would be an easy A with a bit more lyrical personality.  It's well worth your time despite its small faults.

COLLECTOR GEEK ASIDE: The Japanese CD appends two bonus tracks, "I'd Give it Up" and "Arabesque", the latter of which dates back to their pre-debut album club days.  Both are good but inessential.  Nerds like me will love 'em; the rest of the world can let 'em go.

Turning the Lights Back On...

...for a little while, anyway.

Good god, it's been a long while since I've visited this little hidden corner of the internet where I used to say a bunch of things.  I see that it pretty much ends with my getting married back in December of 2014.  That makes all kinds of sense, really: off the page and into the real world.  Navel-gazing - even public navel-gazing like this - kinda takes a back seat when you're part of an us and not just a you anymore, and that is as it should be.

So why am I back?  Why now, asked no one in particular since there's no way in hell that anyone who used to read this has had any reason to stop by in the last four-plus years or so?  Well, it's got to do do with that real world thing I was just rambling on about.  I'm about to start a new blog, one very separate from this one, dealing with things a lot bigger than the dad-rock dissertations that eventually became Turned On Its Ear's bread and butter.  It's a huge project that I'm about to take on, one that I'm simultaneously proud of and terrified by, and one that I know deep down in my heart that I absolutely need to see through.

Much like a former athlete that settled down and discovered the majesty of beer and wings, I feel out of shape.  The truth is that I haven't done much writing since my last posts on here.  I'm ashamed of this; while there are indeed very good reasons why I've neglected my craft, and they form the very core of the new project I'll be talking about more once I'm closer to launching it, the simple fact is that I've let my linguistic muscles get a touch flabby.  Just like the former athlete eventually makes his walk of shame up to the attic to reclaim his old workout gear because he knows it's time to pull it together, so have I reappeared here.

At least for the time being.  Once I'm back in shape and ready to get going on it, the Big New Project will likely occupy most of my writing time.  It'll be serious stuff though, so I suppose it's possible that keeping this place alive as a fun distraction to bullshit about dad-rock might have its place as well.  I really don't know yet - these are all just the first baby-steps towards far bigger things, and I'm still trying to plan it all out.

But plans are worthless without tools, so it's time to get writing and get sharpening.  If there is indeed anyone still reading here, it's very nice to make your acquaintance once again.

And if not, well, maybe I'll hand out some flyers or something...

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Honeymooning Phase

Hi, everybody!  I'm back.

Good lord, getting married is time consuming.  When I last posted here, I had some strange idea that I might take a few weeks off to get settled and then start doing double duty here on my beloved-but-neglected old blog: the same music stuff as ever, but also plenty of content about being a newlywed.  I think I may have even teased an events-in-reverse blog series about the wedding somewhere along the way.  Ambition is a good thing.

On the other hand, realism is a good thing as well.  We are three days shy of five months out from our beautiful wedding as I type this, and I just now am starting to feel as though I'm maybe starting to catch up with the scope and grandeur of my - and our - new life.  This is in no way meant to sound burdensome; it has been my absolute privilege to take this time to fully intertwine my life with Rhea's.

It's a funny thing: because Rhea and I dated so long before tying the knot, I got to hear a lot of advice along the lines of "it won't really be any different."  Which turned out to be complete and utter horseshit: everything is different.  Everything is better.  And everything has to be relearned, or at least substantially tweaked to work as a duet.  That, dear readers, is what I have been doing instead of posting here, and I wouldn't dream of apologizing for a second of my absence.  It has been the most important work of my life thus far, and also the most rewarding.

None of this is to say that I haven't missed hanging out here, though: in fact, we have had so many music and/or new-life related adventures in the last five months that should have been documented here; suffice to say, new material shouldn't be a problem.  Off the top of my head, I've not blogged about the wedding itself, finding the best fucking record store on the planet in the process of getting married, several brilliant new albums, a Record Store Day that included Leatherface and D Generation stuff, amongst others, that I'm still super-stoked about a month later, and god knows what else.

It's a lot to catch up on, and I'm looking forward to doing just that over the course of the next few weeks here on my now-less-dusty old blog.

Talk to you soon!

Merged life, merged record collection.  That's all of 'em, hers and mine...except for the new stuff and on-deck old stuff that lives under the turntable,,,and the bag of Stiff Little Fingers first pressings I grabbed for $7 a pop never ends, and that's the great part.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Not Quite the Wedding Blog, Part II: The Shower Essay

Yeah, I know that I promised this on Monday and it's now Friday.  Welcome, dear friends, to Wedding Preparation Time: four days pass like one?  Sounds about right.  Tomorrow, we head on up to our venue to finalize our menu...and then, once we're done there, probably eat at Cracker Barrel, which Alanis Morissette assures me is at least somewhat ironic.  (An aside: the smart, progressive down-stater in me cannot believe that I've now eaten several meals at a fucking Cracker Barrel.  The fat 'Murican in me doesn't care and loves his dumplings.  Ah, duality, how you kill me sometimes.)

Anyway, here's the essay I wrote for Rhea's shower.  Which, naturally, has nothing to do with Cracker Barrel.  #ShittiestIntroEver, as the kids might tag it.

* * * * *

            Signs that a friendship is about to swerve across several lanes and left-exit onto the Something More Expressway come in different shapes and forms for everybody.  For me, ours was delivered inadvertently by a shriveled ex-member of the Rolling Stones.  Let me explain:

            By the time we met Bill Wyman at a book signing at the Borders in White Plains, Rhea and I had known each other for a little while, having worked together and become increasingly closer friends.  For me, the journey started in December of 2001: broken hearted from a relationship that had recently tanked and feeling like I was spinning my wheels, I took a job with Borders for the holiday season.  I never meant it to be anything serious; I just wanted to put a few bucks in my bank account and get off the couch I’d been fermenting on for the past couple of months.  Once there, I met some interesting folks, made friends, and decided to stick around a bit longer and see where it all took me.  Chief among those friends was the girl who, on my second or third night of employment, came in in the vintage Aerosmith t-shirt.  I remember standing behind the cash register, talking to her about the shirt and the album/tour it came from (not one of Aerosmith’s most appreciated periods; the kind of thing only real fans would even know much about), and realizing that I might have just met someone who was the exact same flavor of nerd as me.  That’s always a great moment in life, by the way.

            That conversation led to many more, first at work, then “hey, do you want to come to the bar tonight?”, then “hey, do you want to go to this concert with me?”, and finally, “hey, do you want to cut out of work early to GO AND MEET A ROLLING STONE?”.  Yes, yes, and yes, and so we did.  Did I mention that the man was shriveled?  Remember the California Raisins?  Like that, only not made of clay.  Nice guy, though; we chatted, he signed, we stood at the front of the store and had someone take the first picture of “us” (whether we knew it or not at the time), and then looked at each other.  I don’t remember who said what, but the conversation went like this:
             “Are you ready to be done with tonight yet?”
            “Want to go to the Pipers Kilt?”
And off we went to our favorite bar to discuss, dissect, dream and bond even further.  That was the night I was sure I’d know this woman for a long time to come.  I don’t know that I was exactly in love yet (or, perhaps more honestly, that I was admitting it yet), but I did know that Rhea was going to be something much more important to my life that just the cool chick I met while working in the record store.  There was work to be done on both sides between that moment and when we made that swerve-and-exit I mentioned back at the beginning: ghosts to be faced down and dispatched, debris in the general vicinity of the heart that needed housekeeping, that sort of thing.  But looking back on that night all these years later, while writing this for our shower/wedding: God, I was so right that night…and what an amazing journey this has been ever since.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Not Quite the Wedding Blog, Part I: The Intro and the Shower

Rhea and I are getting married six weeks from today.  I've alluded to the wedding before in these virtual pages, but I think this is the first time I've laid it down in concrete.  Six weeks and four hours to be exact, but who's really counting?

So why is this the first you're really hearing of it, dear readers?  A fine question: initially, I had intended to blog my little heart out about all the trials and triumphs of wedding planning in real time, all leading up to the big day itself.  It was a great, if obvious, idea, but logistically it just didn't pan out for two major reasons: (1) wedding planning is kind of all-encompassing and time-devouring, and (2) nothing raises emotions like a wedding.

Let me expand a bit.  Reason 1 is fairly self-explanatory: after a full day of wedding planning, I want nothing more to put on some great album and pass out halfway through.  The drain is no joke: a couple of weeks ago, I passed out mid-way through side one of Iron Maiden's Killers blasting on my headphones, waking up only with the kerchunk of the needle hitting the run-out groove.  Don't try that at home.  Reason 2 is a bit more complicated: in no way do I mean my wedding blog to be a venue for spleen venting or dirt dishing, but when you are dealing with a large group of diverse individuals, it's hard to know exactly who might not get a particular joke.  Inadvertently stepping on someone's toes isn't something I even remotely wish to run the risk of: this is supposed to be about joy at the end of the day, and nothing else.

So here's what we're gonna do about all of that: the Big Wedding Blog has not been cancelled, but merely postponed.  Sometime after the dust has cleared from the big event - think late January or so - I'm going to start the Big Wedding Blog, and do it How I Met Your Mother-style: start from the big day and work my way back to the beginning.  I'm thinking twice-a-week as a schedule for it, and I may spin it off from this blog into its own entity.  Watch this space for details.

In the meantime, I think that some as-it-happens writing is in order as well, so that's what this little series will be about.  Right now, it's about an hour before Rhea's wedding shower begins.  It's going to be one amazing afternoon: Kristina, my sister-in-law-to-be, has done an astounding job putting this together, and I'm beyond psyched to stroll in at the end and see the look on Rhea's face.  Right now, I'm at work (nothing weird there - I generally work on Sundays) for a few hours before it's time for me to pack it up here and make my grand entrance there.  I'm actually grateful to be here - gives me something to do while I'm pacing in my cage waiting for my moment - and also grateful that it's slow enough that I'm able to be writing this at the same time.

Apart from being amazing, it should also be an interesting event: lots of people from different parts of our lives will be there, and it's always neat to see who makes friends with whom once everybody gets thrown into a social blender.  The results of that will probably be fodder for the eventual Big Wedding Blog moreso than this, but if there are any really good stories to share, I promise a preview.

Speaking of exclusive content, I wrote a brief essay for the shower about the moment I knew that Rhea and I would be a big part of each others' lives.  I'll post it here either tonight or tomorrow, once the shower guests have had their moment with it.  'Tis good stuff, I think.

Back to pacing, then...

Monday, October 13, 2014

My Night with Phil Collins

Last night, between work and bed, I watched Genesis: Together and Apart, a recent BBC documentary about the veteran prog-rock titans.  Why?  Because I'm a sucker for rock-docs, that's why.  I'm completely indifferent to Genesis as a band, but sometimes the documentaries whose twists and turns I can't predict are the most fun to watch.  Sometimes, it's a gamble that doesn't pay off: I remember watching a VH1 original movie on the Monkees about a decade-ish ago that was so badly acted that it managed to make the real Monkees (and there's a phrase you're unlikely to ever hear again, at least on this blog) seem like geniuses by comparison.  But the Genesis flick was good: well told enough to keep even an non-fan interested for an entertaining ninety minutes.  I'd recommend it.

Music documentaries always rise and fall on how interesting the subjects are, and that goes doubly for one like this that is entirely comprised of interviews with the band members.  It goes without saying that Peter Gabriel is articulate and interesting; while I may not have much interest in Genesis as a whole, Gabriel's first five studio solo albums are must-haves in my book, regardless of the fact that I've tried and failed repeatedly to get more interested in his Genesis work.  I'll probably give The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway yet another chance sometime soon now that I've just watched this movie; that's an album I've always wanted to like the rest of as much as I do the title track.  We shall see.

The rest of the principal members are an interesting lot: guitarist Mike Rutherford comes across as calm and affable, while keyboardist Tony Banks seems like someone you really, really wouldn't want to spend too much real-life time with.  I found myself puzzled, about halfway through the film, as to why Banks spent so long in a band whose output he doesn't really seem to like very much - and talk about a guy who's pissed that he never had much of a solo career.  Holy bitterness, Prog-Man!

Which leaves us with Phil Collins, whom I found in many ways to be the most interesting interview subject in the film.  He comes across as good-natured and sincere, a gentleman who's got a real handle on all the places his career has taken him, and what was good and bad about it all.  His perspective is sharp, and his demeanor likable and engaging; by the time the movie ended, I still wanted to hear more of what he had to say.  It left me with one inevitable question: why on earth do people hate this guy so much?

I'm not talking about his music, which is as open to subjective like/dislike as anyone's.  I'm talking about Collins himself, whom has been the brunt of a stunning amount of internet vitriol in the past few years.  Look, I know it's Wikipedia and all, but read this anyway and ask yourself one serious question: what, exactly, did Collins do to piss in the world's collective corn flakes?  Because some of this stuff is far beyond simply not liking "Sussudio".

And I don't like "Sussudio".  But I do very much like "In the Air Tonight", as most sensible rock fans should.  In fact, I like it so much that I apparently grabbed a sub-$1 vinyl copy of Face Value, the album from whence that great song hails at some point.  I spun it while getting ready for work this morning - no time like the present, right? - and it's a good album.  No, strike that - it's a very good album.  I'll probably never love it the way I do the Ramones or Replacements or whatever else is a little more in my wheelhouse as they say, but it is a record full of artistry, passion, and a number of well written songs, none of which are lowest-common-denominator pabulum.  I'm glad I own it, and I'll likely enjoy hearing it again sometime.

So what's the problem?  His later stuff wasn't as good?  Well, whose is, really?  No, the problem is a bit deeper and darker than that: we hate Phil Collins with such vehemence because we once loved him so much that he became ubiquitous.  And this is what we do as a culture: elevate to eventually devour whole.  British musician comes up with a very identifiable pop sound that captures a mass imagination for a spell and makes him a superstar in the process?  Well, fuck that guy - we'll take him down a notch or ten!  But why, really?  Is that song that millions of people bought copies of a few years back now shit to them simply because THE INTERNET SAYS SO.  Good lord, people: I hope you treat your friends better than your pop stars.

You know what?  I like to be a friend to the bullied whenever I'm able, so I'll stand up right now and tell you that Phil Collins is alright by me.  I, Will, do solemnly swear that I like "In the Air Tonight" - and, really all of Face Value.  And "Turn it On Again".  And wait - he played drums on Peter Gabriel's third album and Robert Plant's The Principle of Moments?  Because those are both desert island albums for me.  I trust you get the drift.

Addendum:  In that Wikipedia article, there is a bit about Jimmy Page blaming the crap-ness of Led Zeppelin's Live Aid set on Collins.  Really, Jimmy?  It wasn't your heroin-addled slop-fest playing that ruined that one, but Phil Collins' drumming?  Oooookaaaay then, because the video evidence suggests otherwise, there, Jim.