Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Trick Tuesday: "Standing on the Edge" (1985)

For the most part, album credits are considered the domain of the obsessive and geeky.  While that’s probably most often true, they can also tell the potential consumer much about the recording they’re about to lay down some hard-earned cash and/or bandwidth for.  In the case of Cheap Trick’s 1985 opus, Standing on the Edge, there are four credits that, when ably decoded, can tell you most of what you need to know.  In order:

·         PRODUCED BY JACK DOUGLAS.  Translation: Should be good, right?  After all, he’s the man who made their debut album sound so perfect.
·         MIXED BY TONY PLATT.  Translation: Who the hell is he?  I don’t see his name on the debut album.  This might be trouble: why didn’t Douglas do it himself?
·         BUN E. CARLOS: ACOUSTIC DRUMS AND CYMBALS.  Translation: The hell kind of a credit is that?  ACOUSTIC drums and cymbals?  Sounds like Bun E.’s trying to tell us something.  I’m starting to get a bit of a sinking feeling.
·         RICK NELSON.  Translation: Seriously?!  Rick NELSON?!  Wow, the masterminds at Epic Records must have been a real hurry to shove this thing out the door.  You know what?  To hell with the CD – maybe we’ll see if there’s some dollar-bin vinyl hanging around instead.

The offending credit, as scanned from the back of the original US CD.  No Photoshop necessary.
Truth be told, the real Rick Nelson’s most famous quote is one the members of Cheap Trick may well have been wise to heed in this era: you can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.  In later interviews, Rick Nielsen spoke candidly about going through something of a crisis of confidence in himself as a songwriter during the mid-to-late ‘80s.  While there were some symptoms of this on the previous two albums, the disease really begins to rear its head audibly on this one.

To be fair, Standing on the Edge is hardly a bad album; in fact, it’s more consistent in tone, and probably a bit truer to the band’s songwriting roots musically speaking than either One on One or Next Position Please.  So why, in terms of overall quality, is it about on par with the latter and a bit below the standard of the former?  Two reasons: first, the songs aren’t consistently strong.  There are a few true jewels here and only one complete turkey, but too much of the album wades along in pleasantly generic water.  “Generic” makes for a good segue to the album’s second significant problem: a near-total lack of Nielsen’s signature quirky, witty lyrical personality.  For the songwriter responsible for “He’s a Whore” or “Dream Police” or “Surrender” or even “Next Position Please” (the song) to spend half an album wallowing in T&A clichés that belong on the soundtrack to some sub-Porky’s teen titty flick is nothing more than an utter waste of a talent that is far more rare and refined than that.

Think I’m kidding?  Look at some of these song titles: “Rock All Night”.  “Wild Wild Women”.  “She’s Got Motion”.  “Cover Girl”.  Without even hearing them, is it any wonder that all four of these are some degree of crap?  “Rock All Night” is the worst offender, wedding a ridiculously oversized riff to lyrics that sound like they’re straight off a Spinal Tap b-side; Nielsen tried in interviews to sheepishly pass it off as parody without sounding all that convincing.  The other three are at least likeable enough musically to hum along with provided you shut your brain off the second you come in contact with the lyrics.  “Cover Girl” in particular is a waste of a great melody; the second you hear Robin Zander somehow bluff his way through a reference to “Page 69”, you start to doubt whether this one’s going on the mix tape after all.  Look, I’m not suggesting that all rock ‘n’ roll needs to lyrically aspire to Shakespearian quality levels, but from a band that partially made their name on cleverness, Standing on the Edge represents a depressing dumbing down…or perhaps the guitarist’s sad loss of faith in his own significant abilities.

At least the generic lyrics are somewhat ignorable.  The album actually opens with its ultimate what-the-fuck moment: on first blush, “Little Sister” is a great rave-up rocker with a chorus that runs for miles.  The problem shows itself about halfway through, as it slowly begins to dawn on you that this song…is about…incest?!  “Pluck this flower in full bloom / this relative’s no niece.”  Um, yeah, I guess there’s no real other way to read that one, is there?  One of the thing I’ve always loved about Rick as a songwriter is his ability to make something cool out of a taboo subject, but Jesus, Rick: stick to the serial killers and male gigolos, would ya?  Because this is just a bit too creepy, and a bit too forced, my good sir.

So what’s good about the album, then?  Four stone killers, that’s what.  First and foremost is the rock radio/MTV hit “Tonight It’s You”, a brilliantly shimmering bit of whisper-to-scream songwriting that deserved higher than its #44 Billboard peak.  “This Time Around” is a great mid-tempo pop song that really should have seen single release, while “How About You” is a prime slice of hyperkinetic rave-up, and “Love Comes” is a gorgeous, haunting ballad resembling something akin to a more commercially-minded “Mandocello.”  As indicated by the credits, the production giveth and taketh away: Douglas’ early involvement ensures that Rick’s guitars sound better here than they have since All Shook Up, and that then-bassist Jon Brant is actually audible in a mix for the first time; predictably, he’s no Tom Petersson, but he’s an able, graceful player who kept Tom’s seat warm with style and aplomb.  On the downside, Platt’s very 1985 mix probably sounded cutting-edge and with-it at the time, but now sounds fairly 80s-damaged and dated.  Hence Bun E. Carlos’ custom credit on the sleeve: in an interview at the time, the drummer explained it thusly: “I didn’t want to be held responsible for the ‘booms’ and that garbage they put in there.  [The credit was] just to let people know that if they didn’t like the dopey effects, it wasn’t my fault.”  As wise a man as he is a fine drummer.

Confession time: back when I first bought the tape – again, sometime in late 1988 – I absolutely loved the damned thing.  The math speaks for itself: 1988 was a lot less removed from 1985 than 2011 is, and when you’re fourteen years old and suffering from an acute outbreak of hormones, dopey T&A lyrics are every bit as useful to you as snarky-clever wit is.  Likewise, the production sounded contemporary rather than cheesy: it was LOUD, catchy, and – sorry, Bun E. – BOOMY!  In fact, I loved it so much that I actually owned two cassettes of it: my original one, and a second one to replace it when it became trapped in a walkman that I had confiscated by the Gestapo…I mean Assistant Principal of my High School, and my mother wanted to teach me a lesson about responsibility by not going in and reclaiming it for me.  Ah, the sad injustices of teenaged life.  Still, I picked up a new walkman and new tape on the QT, and life went on.  What can I say?  I was always one for the practical answer, even at a young age.

Back here in 2011, it’s kind of hard for me to rate Standing on the Edge fairly.  Listening to it as dispassionately as I can manage, it’s a total middle-of-the-pack album: a few really strong songs, and then a bunch of other stuff.  On the other hand, my teenaged self needs to have his say as well, and he absolutely adored the damned thing.  The truth lies somewhere in between, I suppose: while I know in my heart of hearts that this thing barely deserves a mention in the same breath as, say, Dream Police or Rockford, I also know that the silly thing sounded just great blasting from my speakers as I prepared to write this on a hot July morning, and I’ve still got the CD pulled from the archives for some potential later-in-the-week, stun-volume-in-the-car action.  I guess that’s the thing about your absolute favorite bands: you end up loving even the stuff you probably shouldn’t like.  Hipster and academic critics to the contrary, there is not one damned thing in the world wrong with that, either.  So screw it: on a hot summer day with the windows down, be it in a Camaro or not, Standing on the Edge gets two horns up.  Whatever may be lacking about it, it certainly don’t need no instructions to know how to rock.

Next week: the Atari 2600 E.T. of Cheap Trick albums; the Ishtar of the discography…but is it really their worst?  Make an appointment and find out.

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