Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Trick Tuesday: "Cheap Trick" (1997)

The first thing I knew or saw of the album was the cover, reproduced in some music magazine or other.  I was immediately pissed off: self-titled album, black-and-white cover shot?  How dare they deliberately invoke such symbolism with the likes of Busted so close in their rear-view mirror?  Sure, their last album was half-good…but it was half-bad, too.  It certainly was not the kind of album to inspire confidence in a follow-up that was going out of its way to ape the iconography of the band’s then two-decade old debut masterpiece.

As the release date loomed closer, the buzz started to build: this was, in fact, a real Cheap Trick album, one true to the spirit of their ‘70s work without being either overly studied or bathed in too many coats of gloss.  A lot of critics were calling it their best since Dream Police, and some of them didn’t even sound completely like they were being paid to say it.  You’ve got to remember, folks: the internet was in its infancy as a mainstream-adopted thing at the time.  1997 was near the very end of the old world where such things were concerned: for all intents and purposes, there were still no MP3 leaks yet.  You had to wait for something to actually be released, and then you had to pay your money and take your chances once it happened.

And so I did.  I was upstate in college in 1997, and a friend of mine and I drove into Syracuse the day Cheap Trick hit shelves.  The whole way there, I was semi-bitching about it: “Seriously – they haven’t made a front-to-back good album in something like fifteen years.  Why do I believe this one will be any different?”  At the time, it was a fair question.  We got there, grabbed the disc, popped it in, and started to head back home.  After about one minute into the album and the attendant “holy shit, maybe they actually did it…”, all talking gave way to serious listening.  My favorite band was literally being reborn before my very ears: vibrant, invested and uncompromised in a manner in which I’d never heard them before on a new album.  I was stunned and speechless.  Needless to say, both title and art design now made perfect sense and seemed 100% appropriate to the album’s content.

Fourteen years on, I still feel the same.  Trying to single out individual standouts on this album is nearly as ridiculous a task as trying to do the same with that other self-titled album they have: everything here is successful both taken individually and as a part of a greater whole.  If I must, I’ll say that “Hard to Tell” may be the definitive Cheap Trick song, a great choice for someone who’s never heard the band before.  To manage such a feat two decades into a band’s career is nearly unheard of; to sustain it for a whole album is damn near impossible.

The 1997 model Cheap Trick is also the album that made them relevant to me in the present tense.  Much as I adored the ‘70s classics, they were made before my time.  Talking to friends about Cheap Trick always had to be done with the “their old stuff is way better” disclaimer.  In April 1997, that all changed: here was Cheap Trick, of all bands, with a vital new album that could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with anything by the bands they’d inspired in the interim.  Not in a pandering, “we can do young, too!” kind of way, but with the easy confidence of a well-earned timelessness.  It is the album that cemented their status as my favorite band, and much like their best work of their early career, it has aged extraordinarily well.  At the time, Rick Nielsen claimed that they’d self-titled it because it was “the first album of the second half of our career.”  How completely and happily correct he was.

We’ll leave this one where we began it, then: with the cover art.  Once I came to accept it as appropriate to the album’s contents, I also came to see how brilliantly clever it is in its own right.  Sure, it just looks like a black-and-white shot of the band’s equipment, but look more closely for a minute:

 Got it yet?  Don’t feel bad if you haven’t – it’s a bit on the subtle side.  Think of the album covers for In Color, Heaven Tonight, At Budokan and Lap of Luxury: the ones with the “cute guys” (Zander, Petersson) on the front and the “weirdos” (Nielsen, Carlos) on the back.  Now, think about exactly whose equipment is on the front cover of the 1997 album: Nielsen’s trademark five-necked guitar and Carlos’ bass drum, with Zander’s guitar and Petersson’s bass represented on the back.  Absolutely brilliant: the past both acknowledged and, well, turned on its ear, all at once.

 Next week: A break for live albums other than that famous Japanese thing.

Monday, August 29, 2011

My Picture of Questionable Listening

Rhea and I, on the N train out to Coney Island for the ill-fated Cheap Trick show described in this post.  Not bad for a self-photograph, even if the "Next Stop: Coney Island" on the display behind us isn't as visible as I'd hoped.  Oh, and when I said that my Rockford t-shirt was "obnoxious yellow", I was not at all kidding.

The End of the World This Year, Part 108 (or: Come On, Irene)

Before this gets flippant, I’d like to extend my best wishes to anyone truly hit hard by Hurricane Irene.

For me, the entire Hurricane Irene experience can be summed up by the large, scowling man I saw standing outside a ShopRite grocery store at around midnight on Friday night.  He was yelling at his significant other about bread, and wearing a black t-shirt that screamed DON’T ASK ME 4 SHIT (typeset exactly that way) in large white lettering on the back.  I’d have grabbed a photo of it for the blog, but I decided that getting my ass kicked then and there would have left me in a really bad mood for the hurricane itself.

It was an impending storm, which is certainly nothing to be taken lightly.  It was not a race to see who can collect the most loaves of bread or packages of batteries before their neighbors could get to them, nor was it a competition to see who could first predict and then revel in the most destruction.  The former is just silliness; it happens all the time when either heavy rain or snow is predicted.  Each time around, I kid myself that at least some of that over-bought bread might end up donated to the needy once the sky doesn’t actually fall, even though I’m certain that’s not the case.  The latter is a good deal more insidious, and more sociologically perplexing to me.

The amount of over-anxious clucking to be heard in the day or two before Irene’s arrival was nothing short of stupefying: “There will be widespread destruction!”  “We’ll be without power for days!”  “Everybody near the shore will drown!”  “Giant frogs will abound!”  Okay, so maybe not the last one, but you get the drift.  If any of this was said as an expression of honest concern, that would have been one thing.  But it wasn’t; it was more along the lines of “It will be so awesome for me when these awful things happen to other people!”

Which leaves me with the obvious question: why?  So you can claim that the superiority of your survival skills has to do with something other than sheer, dumb luck?  So that you can knock the Joneses that you can’t quite keep up with out of the race, like a well-timed shell hit just before the finish line in Mario Kart?  So that you can gloat fitfully without actually having to accomplish something?  Honestly, the mind boggles.

My town, Elmsford, was hit particularly hard.  Being in the middle of a hill, rather than at the bottom of it, me and mine were mostly spared.  There is some debris in the yard, and our internet service remains a bit on the wonky side, but we kept power and suffered no structural damage to our property.  We were lucky, and I am sincerely grateful.  My old friends up at Borders were also lucky, in a way: the resulting power outage spared them a day of having to deal with their increasingly delightful liquidation sale.  I’m sure that, by this point, a day away from it was a good thing for at least some of them, and I’m glad that a bit of good came from the whole mess.

For those who didn’t make it out quite as unscathed, I’m truly sorry.  Not in a condescending, come-check-out-the-misery kind of way, but in a heartfelt one.  Personally, I prefer my people safe and my big old disasters to remain safely at the movies.

Welcome Back, My Friends...

Will Z's Blog Thing is dead.  Long live Turned On Its Ear!

Glad you found me, thanks for making the drive, hope you like the new digs!  Everything that used to be there is now here, and new stuff will be found here but not there beginning with tomorrow's Trick Tuesday installment.

My Week of Questionable Listening Part 4: The Unknown Quantity of Mr. Big

The fourth and last in our week of concerts was, in some ways, the most important of all.  Although one or the other of us has some level of affection, even if in a cheesy way, for everything we saw last week, two of them were more “serious” than the other two: Cheap Trick (me), and, for Rhea, this finale.  Even on that level, there was one difference: Cheap Trick has never disappointed me on a stage; they are unquestionably one of rock ‘n’ roll’s great live attractions.  Rhea’s pick, on the other hand, was a bit more of an unknown quantity.

Apparently, Mr. Big hasn’t toured in America in about fifteen years.  This is not something I would have known outside of being the one to be with Rhea, seeing as how I’d completely forgotten about the band shortly after their irritating hit single “To Be with You” had disappeared from the airwaves in the wake of Nirvana.  Rhea and I have somewhat different tastes in cheese: mine is centered more on the AOR acts of the late ‘70s through the mid ‘80s, whereas Rhea’s all about the hair metal that followed in the next era.  Most hair metal does nothing for me.  I’m not saying that to be cool in any way – hell, I just admitted to liking Foreigner three entries back, for Christ’s sake – but more as a matter of fact.  For me, as the hair went up, the need to write decent, memorable songs went down proportionately.  Hell, I’d probably rather look at Sebastian Bach than Lou Gramm myself, if I were in Hell and forced to have to make that choice, but I also know that I’d rather hear Gramm sing his far more memorable catalog.  I’ll also take this moment to point out that I’d sell both of ‘em out in a heartbeat in order to save the Mekons, lest you all think I somehow lost my mind sometime during Hurricane Irene.

Anyway, back to Mr. Big.  Rhea insisted that they weren’t just another hair metal band, that their music was of more importance to her than that.  It had more substance, in her opinion.  That, in turn, means something to me: while I was hardly impressed with the one song of theirs I knew, I take the opinion of the woman I’m going to marry very seriously…except when she’s talking about Poison.  Rhea was all excited when the show was announced; she had never seen the band during their heyday.  That excitement turned to a bit of disappointment when none of her “rock ‘n’ roll friends” – the kind of folks who would go to see Sebastian Bach – showed much interest in this one.  Naturally, I did what any kind of lover should do: “Darling, I’ll go with you.”

I don’t know what I expected of the band, quite frankly.  I only cared that they be as good as Rhea had her heart set on them being.  The build-up was staggering: we arrived at BB King’s not too long after the doors had opened, and there was already quite the crowd inside.  “Who knew?” I muttered to myself.  And what a crowd it was, split evenly three ways between Japanese tourists (Mr. Big is apparently still an arena-level attraction over there), middle-aged wanna-be guitarists, and dirtball hair-farmers seemingly unaware that 1989 has long since come and gone.  There was a palpable, disturbing racist undercurrent to all of this: get your slanty eyes outta my Camaro, I typed into the notepad on my cell phone, and that about sums up the vibe given off by a lot of these washed-up (albeit certainly not recently washed) American rocker-types.

All of this crowd-watching was then rudely interrupted by what had to be the single most clichéd opening band I’ve ever seen.  I’m not even sure they had a name; they may just have been called Opening Band, and if they were not, they should have been.  Plenty of tattoos, probably really meant it, man, but ultimately the same hook-less punk-metal yammering that opens 80% of gigs in Manhattan.  Call me an old man if you must, but I’m just fine with the fact that I go out of my way to miss more and more of this stuff as I age.

Shortly after that, the headliners hit the stage.  Rhea was enchanted from minute one: after about the third song, she turned to me and said “You know, I could go home now if I had to and be satisfied.”  I could tell just by watching her that this band was doing what it needed to for her, and that made them okay in my book.  At the beginning of the show, I was hardly sold: I thought the singer had a good voice, but that the endless noodling simply wasn’t for me.  Don’t get me wrong: what these guys can do with their instruments is impressive, and nothing that I’ll ever have the talent for, but I’m neither a Guitar Player subscriber nor a Dream Theater fan for a reason.  By the twentieth or so bass solo, I was fairly bored with it.  By about halfway in, I started to soften a bit: “you know”, I thought to myself, “you rarely see this sort of chops-or-die playing applied to what is essentially pop-hard-rock.”  I’m still not sure that I think it’s a great idea, mind you, but it is fairly unique to this band.  When they hit on a bit of songwriting that clicked, which I felt happened about every third song or so, it made for a sound that really was something different.  Maybe not “for me”, as it were, but I saw Rhea’s point: this was hardly some third-rate Poison wanna-be.

Ultimately, none of the preceding criticism matters one whit.  Rhea –a fan going in – thought the band delivered and then some, and that’s the real test.  This band, fifteen years after the fact, kept an old fan absolutely dazzled over the course of a two hour performance.  Really, what more is there to be said about their quality?  One thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that you can only judge something against what it is meant to be.  You can no more look down on a band like Mr. Big for not being as “cool” as, say, Radiohead than you can blame, say, Bon Jovi for not sounding more like Motörhead.  You can prefer one style to the other in either of those analogies; difference of opinion is what makes the world go around, but you can’t blame an otter for not being a dog.  Mr. Big’s job is to deliver their instrumentally self-indulgent catalog with precision and aplomb; according to the big fan I watched them with, they did just that.  Credit where due.

On a more personal note, I walked out of BB King’s a very happy man: an old hair-metal band had done right by my baby.  How many men ever really get to say that?  Seriously, though, what better way to end our week of questionable listening than having learned that the answer to the biggest question of it all was resoundingly positive?

My Week of Questionable Listening Part 3: Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season (or: The Wild, Wacky Fans of Jimmy Buffett)

“Jimmy Buffett fans are people who weren’t cool enough to be deadheads.”

So claimed Dave, an old friend and former boss of mine back when Rhea and I still worked for Borders.  At the time, my argument was with the last bit of his pronouncement: “Dave, how is one possibly not cool enough to be a deadhead?  Isn’t that particular bar set pretty low?”  From there, I’m sure the witty banter ping-ponged back and forth until yet another boring shift had been dispatched to the great time-clock in the sky.  Still, it’s a great, clever line – and one that’s pretty much true.

But that’s getting a bit ahead of the story.  Ultimately, the joke was on my younger self: as time has gone by, I’ve been won over bit-by-bit by the cleverness and attention to detail present in Buffett’s ‘70s songwriting.  Relax: I’m hardly about to go out and buy a parrot hat, nor am I much interested in whatever he might have recorded once the ‘80s hit and the shtick set in, but Buffett really had a way with characters and turns of phrase back when he was young and hungry.  The Dead, on the other hand, still just bore me to catatonia, but that’s another rant.

This show is where the disappointment set in for real: having been to Buffett with Rhea last year, I was all primed to produce this blog’s first YouTube foray: Jimmy Buffett Parking Lot.  I was going to bring you the sounds, sights, and, maybe through descriptive narration even the smells of this yearly assemblage of people too old to drink that much.  Last year, the very first thing that happened one we parked the car and got out was the passing by of a fifty-something couple, and the following loud exchange from the man to the woman: “Ethel!  I can’t find the fucking car!”  Seriously, folks, I don’t care if you give a damn about Buffett’s music or not: you owe it to yourself to take a summer afternoon off, grab a cooler and a lawn chair of your own, and watch the ultimate in aging-burnout parking-lot parties.

Sadly, the weather intervened again: had Marty Markowitz been involved, Buffett would probably have gotten as far as his fourth song or so and been given the hook.  Since Marty’s white jacket has no powers outside the borough of Brooklyn, Buffett did eventually take the stage and play a full-ish set, but only after we got an hour or two of previews for this past weekend’s Hurricane Irene performance.  The only video we’ve got is about a minute or two of me narrating the arriving of the storm, and it’s damn near unwatchable.  Sorry, folks; I was really looking forward to it.

[Aside: it’s still a really good idea.  I don’t know if I’ll be the one to do it next summer; honestly, there’s so much on the horizon for Rhea and I in the next year or so, in a good way, that it’s probably not likely.  So I’m officially offering the idea of Jimmy Buffett Parking Lot to the readers of this blog, largely because I’d like to see someone smart and clever give it a go.  Just promise to send me a link if you do it.  Deal?]

Anyway, Buffett was Buffett; what, do you think a rainstorm is gonna stop him of all people?  Please.  It seems like his set was probably trimmed a bit due to the late start, but he still conducted his yearly sing-along of all his perennials with aplomb.  We peeled out a bit early, fearful that the shortened set probably hadn’t given some of the crowd enough time to sober up, but I did get to hear him sing “Son of a Son of a Sailor”, and we got to spend another lovely, romantic summer night out at the beach.

What more could you want from such an evening, really?

My Week of Questionable Listening Part 2: Of Cheap Tricks and Lightning

Honestly, this would be the only one of our week of concerts that neither Rhea nor I would tag as questionable listening, but sometimes you can’t fight with a good series title.  In the last segment, I talked a little bit about the cool things that only locals can tell you about an area.  The absolute reverse of that comes with being a New Yorker: there is so much to see and do in the Apple that no one ever really gets to all of it.  Sometimes, though, you get a chance to cross off something you should have done years before, like when your favorite band ends up playing a free show just off the Boardwalk at Coney Island, a place that  you’re a bit ashamed to admit you’ve never been, at least if  you happen to be me.  I don’t know how it happened, given that it’s just within the last year that I’ve even been amenable to eating hot dogs other than Nathan’s, but that’s just how things go sometimes.

When we started out for NYC, there wasn’t a cloud visible in a beautiful, blue summer sky.  We left the car uptown, opting to take the subway out to Coney and not have to deal with the parking situation out there.  Times Square to Coney Island on the N train has to be one of the longest subway rides in the world, by the way.  Still, we make our way out there; even with a stop at Uncle Louie G for Rhea to grab an Italian Ice, the line to get into the venue is hardly ridiculously long by the time we get on it.  The gates open as close to on time as these things ever happen, and we stake out  seats reasonably close to the stage, maybe ten or fifteen rows or so back.  Shortly thereafter, the evening started to get strange.

It began with the fight: two fifty-or-sixty somethings nearly coming to blows over who had laid claim to the seats in front of us first.  Absolutely ridiculous; amazingly, the confrontation nearly became physical until the police – that’s right, folks, the po-po – finally stepped in and sent the more obnoxious of the two to the corner.  It’s not like there weren’t a million other seats with the same sightline available in the surrounding area, either.  While I’d love it for them if Cheap Trick seats were such a hot commodity, I think we all know the truth on that score.  Fortunately for Rhea and I, the folks next to us chose to sit with us specifically because I was wearing an obnoxious yellow Rockford album-cover shirt; they became fast friends and good company over the next three hours.

Yep.  Three hours.  Instead of the opening band, we got Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, a man I had never heard of prior to this night but now feel like I might one day be obligated to spend Passover with.  I’ve no idea if Markowitz is a “good” politician or not, but I’m certain the man knows how to promote himself.  I wish I’d got a shot of the banner over the stage; it didn’t exactly say MARTY MARKOWITZ presents a MARTY MARKOWITZ production of (cheap trick) brought to you by MARTY MARKOWITZ, but it might as well have.  The guy’s gotta be seen to be believed as well; here’s a photo stolen from Cheap Trick’s official site of the man himself along with some other dudes we’ve been discussing on this blog from time to time.

 Anyway, Marty informs us that we are about to be hit by a storm, and that he will do all he can to make sure we see the show tonight once it passes.  On the first of those claims, Marty was dead on: within twenty minutes, we were treated to pouring rain as well as a lightning show the likes of which I’d only ever seen on TV.  Honestly, as opening acts go, I’ve seen far worse.  Just before 10 PM, Marty took the stage again, this time speaking via hand-held bullhorn, and announces that they are going to scrub the opening band, attempt to get the stage cleared up, and bring out Cheap Trick.  This is exactly what happens over the next thirty minutes; once power is restored, we are entertained by Marty explaining why he wears a white jacket and white shoes, and then thanking every last human being who has ever made a financial contribution to him by name.  At long last, the stage goes dark and a very familiar intro tape begins to play.

Cheap Trick take the stage: they are on fire.  I’ve seen them live countless times, and I know when they’re particularly “on”.  This is one of those nights: the set list is to die for, and the band members are bringing their “A” stuff.  About half an hour in, we see a stagehand gesture to Rick Nielsen between songs; the two exchange words, and Rick stomps – visibly angry – over to a microphone.  “They say that there’s more lightning in the area, and we’ve got to stop playing.  What do you think?”  The crowd – a surprising percentage of whom have stayed through the previous storm – roars its disapproval.  Rick saunters back to the side of the stage, speaking and gesticulating at the stagehand.  He returns to the microphone.  “Okay.  They’re going to let us play one more song, so we’re going to make it a long one.”  My new friend to my right and I call it immediately, in unison: “Gonna Raise Hell.”  Halfway through – right as the “Mother!” section is about to start – the plug is pulled.  Nielsen exits with a truly disgusted “Just so you know, it’s not us.  We want to play.”  Markowitz, who was very visible when this concert was still going to go on, damn it, was nowhere to be found once it was prematurely ended.  Typical politician.

Rhea and I decided to make the best of things, and head on down to Nathan’s for some hot dogs.  It was sitting on their patio munching away that I began to mull the concept of quality vs. quantity.  I’ve paid good money to see Cheap Trick play thirty-five minute opening sets simply because it was the only time they were going to be around that year, and not one of them had a set list that looked like this: Just Got Back > California Man > Oh, Candy > I Want You to Want Me > She’s Tight > He’s a Whore > (half of) Gonna Raise Hell.  That’s certainly a lot more than nothing, and also a lot more than a half hour consisting of “I Want You to Want Me”, “Surrender”, “Dream Police”, “The Flame” and two more evergreens.  At that moment, I reached contentment with the entire thing: of course, I’d love to know where that set list was ultimately heading, but what we had been able to see was brilliant, and it was all an adventure we’d not soon forget.

Five minutes later, the fireworks started. Literally, and loudly, coming from the Brooklyn Cyclones’ stadium.   Apparently, the weather was conducive to explosives, but not to a rock concert.  At that moment, I decided that Marty Markowitz is a first-class jackass.

My Week of Questionable Listening Part 1: Journey, Foreigner and the Nature of Tributes

The following begins the saga of my stay-at-home vacation week with Rhea, during which much was heard and seen.

Every area has its cool little things that only the locals know about.  Although neither Rhea nor I have ever lived on Long Island, we’ve made enough friends out there that, several years back, we got tipped off to what we’ve since referred to as the Jones Beach Thing: the ability to drag a couple of lawn chairs out to the grounds of the famous summer concert amphitheater and listen for free.  It’s a great way to spend a hot summer evening: pack a cooler with drinks and snacks, grab the lawn chairs, and set up shop.  Most of the time, the sound is no worse than it would be inside the venue, and there’s even one area where you can see the large video monitor that flanks the right side of the stage.  Especially as ticket prices continue their stratospheric rise, the Jones Beach Thing is a great way to spend a cheap summer night out – and to hear the sort of stuff you’d never actually consider paying your hard-earned for.

Like Foreigner and Journey.  Both of these former arena titans have an adequate-enough back catalog of guilty pleasures that making a killing at the summer sheds should be a foregone conclusion for either.  There’s just one small fly in the ointment: neither band currently features the distinctive singer that actually made those guilty pleasures in the first place.  Snobs and aficionados can debate what constitutes a tribute band vs. the real thing until the cows come home; what I learned last week is that so long as you can make it sound the way it should, Joe Ticketbuyer doesn’t much care, and maybe that’s as it should be.

Our mouths dropped simultaneously as we were shoed away from the main parking lot and into adjunct parking: Journey, with a small Filipino man playing the role of Steve Perry, had sold out Jones Beach.  Even the lawn-chair area was more populated than usual as we settled into our spots.  I’ve got to admit, FiliPerry (as my friend Jason can be credited with dubbing him when we first saw him a few years back) gets the job done and then some; regardless of your opinion of him, Steve Perry isn’t the easiest singer in the world to accurately impersonate.  According to Wikipedia, the real Steve Perry is currently sixty-two years old, and according to rumors he is very out of practice.  Arnel Pineda, on the other hand, hit the BIG NOTE in “Don’t Stop Believin’” like it wasn’t no thang.  I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to decide what might constitute better value-for-money in this sort of situation; the thousands who flocked to Jones Beach the other night made their decision crystal clear, singing along with aplomb and even staying relatively polite and attentive during the dreaded new songs.  Exposure on The Sopranos or Glee alone isn’t enough to pack out a place like Jones Beach; authenticity is also a part of that equation.

Before Journey, we caught the last few songs worth of Foreigner.  In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit to being more of a fan of that band than Journey, at least as far as the records they made in their respective heydays are concerned.  Journey made a string of memorable hit singles, but what lives between them on their non-compilation albums is often fairly gruesome.  Foreigner, on the other hand, left behind a string of four perfect, stupid arena rock albums back in the day.  Look, either you’ve got a soft spot for all of this Velveeta or you don’t – but if you do, for my money Foreigner’s variety of it tastes the freshest.  On the other hand, Foreigner in their current configuration present a bit more of a conundrum where authenticity is concerned: where Journey can at least boast three out of five classic-era members, Foreigner has but one.  Admittedly, Mick Jones did have more than just a hand in writing much of the group’s classic material, but he didn’t sing it.  A gentleman named Lou Gramm did; sadly, a brain tumor left the former front man in a deteriorated state both physically and vocally, but also damned lucky to be alive.  For my money, Gramm in his prime had the single best voice in all of AOR: capable of hitting the soaring notes just like Steve Perry or anyone else, but also possessed of a bit more rock-n’-roll grit than his contemporaries.  His current understudy isn’t quite the doppelganger that Pineda is for Perry; his voice is a bit lower than Gramm’s, and he’s a bit more his own man in terms of how he sings the material.  Artistically, this is laudable, but it clearly wasn’t selling to the crowd the same way Pineda’s note-for-note re-creation was.  Whereas Journey convinced me that they were, in fact, Journey, Mick Jones’ new band seemed like simply that: a new group centered around the onetime Foreigner guitarist, established to play his catalog.  There’s not a thing in the world wrong with that, but perhaps “The Mick Jones Band” would be a more honest moniker for it.

Before Foreigner, Night Ranger –who I’m told actually have their original singer, whoever he was – played, but Rhea and I were far more concerned with finishing the delicious barbeque we were having for dinner than with rushing out to the beach in time to catch them.  Thus, the one and only thing I know about them remains the same: once, years ago, I had to convince a co-worker that “Sister Christian” was neither by nor about Motörhead.  Alas, poor Lemmy, what is your price for flight?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The End of the World This Year, Part 107

Dear television programmers: enough already.  At this point, one of two things will happen: either the storm will hit us with 100% power, or it will (hopefully) hit us with less than that.  Airing today's 1,563rd SPECIAL EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with the owner of the Brigantine, New Jersey WaWa or someone similar isn't going to change anything.

As for me, I've got two loaves of bread, two jars of peanut butter, and some bottled water.  Until the power goes out, Chicken Little and I are gonna hunker down in front of the Wii for a few hours of "Donkey Kong Country Returns".  Should the lights go out, I've got about five audiobooks loaded on the 100% charged MP3 player.  It's all a little home-y and boring compared to most of what I've done in the last week-and-a-half or so (and will be blogging about over the next few days), but whattaya gonna do?  Not every Saturday night can be a SATURDAY NIGHT.

Armageddon?  Meh.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Trick Tuesday: "Woke Up with a Monster" (1994)

First off, let’s clear the obvious elephant from the room: how ‘bout that album cover, eh?  In general, in these weekly posts, I’ve tried to use something other than the album cover for illustration: a single label, a promo-only something-or-other, a t-shirt, etc.  I’ve included the album art for Woke Up with a Monster as-is for one reason: education.  Just look at that mess for a second or two, and you can almost hear the musings of the fresh-outta-art-school doofus responsible:  “No, no, forget that inky typewriting logo – it’s so 1978.  What we need is something hip and edgy, something to announce that this ain’t your daddy’s Cheap Trick anymore.  I know: a creepy clown, an ugly hooker, and a sampling of horrible-looking fonts!  Yeah, the kids will love it! It just screams 1994 Alternative Culture, am I right?”  The lesson here is simple, folks: screw too much with the successfully tried-and-true, and this is where you will end up.  Ugh.

So, yeah, here we are: the cutout king of the entire Cheap Trick oeuvre, likely still available for five bucks in the dusty CD rack towards the back of a Walgreen’s near you, wedged between The Spaghetti Incident and Done with Mirrors.  The surprise here is that it’s actually worth rescuing from that sort of purgatory: while it isn’t a complete return to form (that would happen three years later), Monster is still a huge step in the right direction from where we were by Busted’s end.

The thing that seemed revelatory at the time – and the reason why Monster sounded so much better in 1994 than it does now – is that the band finally sounded like itself again.  The songs had their growl and overbite back; this was clearly the work of Cheap Trick, not Cheap Trick as filtered through the lens of some producer and record company trying to make them sound like Bon Jovi.  Even if all of the songs were turkeys, this would be an amazing and wonderful development in and of itself.

In truth, about half the songs were turkeys.  In particular, “Ride the Pony” is often identified by fans as the band’s single worst song, and with good reason.  While I’d actually defer to Rick Nielsen’s opinion that the moldy mid-80s soundtrack contribution “Up the Creek” stands as Cheap Trick’s absolute recorded nadir, there is no getting around the fact that the “Pony” should probably be taken behind the barn and shot.  While none of the remaining songs are quite in that league, thankfully, Monster remains the one Cheap Trick album where I can’t simply scan the back cover and immediately know what every song sounds like.  “Never Run Out of Love”, “Girlfriends”, and “Let Her Go”?  Hmm.  [Pause while author distracts audience with puppets or something and clicks on Winamp with his other hand.]  Right: pro-forma ballad, go-nowhere rocker, better than I remembered but really needs a strong pre-chorus, in that order.  Forget what they sound like?  Moi?  How silly of you to even suggest such a thing.

Still, when Monster clicks, it kills: “My Gang” is just the kind of rousing, infectious opener the band hadn’t managed to come up with in years, maybe not since “I Can’t Take It” on Next Position Please.  “Didn’t Know I Had It” is the sort of hybrid not-quite-ballad-or-rocker that no one in rock ‘n’ roll does better than these guys; think “Tonight It’s You” without the production gauze.  “Cry Baby” is a sledgehammer blues that tips its hat to the first album’s “Cry, Cry” without embarrassing itself in such esteemed company, and “You’re All I Wanna Do” is pure, gooey, cavity-inducing power-pop of the best kind.  Although it’s a divisive cut amongst fans, I’ve always been partial to “Love Me for a Minute”, the album’s closer: that funky beat that drives the song is something they should really play around with more, and the pre-chorus build (the “it seems like she’s not ever going back again” part) is an arrangement touch to die for.

So, right, the album’s mostly pleasant-to-very-good.  What went wrong commercially, then?  Two big mistakes: first off, the cover.  Not to beat a dead horse, but would you see that and think “oh, wow, impulse buy”?  Of course not.  Secondly, poor choice of lead-off single: the title track attempts to re-write another first album song, this time “The Ballad of TV Violence”, failing to layer in much of a melody underneath the noise, as that 1977 classic did so brilliantly.  As a statement of intent, choosing “Woke Up with a Monster” as a single was laudable; as an actual song, unfortunately, it’s mostly a LOUD but tuneless drone; an unpleasant, hook-less wall of impenetrable noise.  Clearly, this wasn’t “The Flame” anymore…but was it anything a casual fan would want to hear instead?  It was a question that a strong second single could have answered; too bad Warner Brothers Records didn’t see fit to actively promote one.

Seventeen years later, Cheap Trick has continued to sound like itself ever since Monster announced their homecoming.  The fact that subsequent albums have done so with the benefit of far more consistent, inspired songwriting has left Monster as little more than a budget-priced footnote in the band’s history, and that judgment is largely correct.  Still, it’s a footnote worth spending a few minutes with.  Just whittle it down to the great six-or-seven song EP that it should have been, and you’ll be good to go.

Next week: now that’s what I’m talking about.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Trick Thursday!

Free show at Coney Island tonight!

Should be a blast.  Rhea and I are heading down there in a few hours, leaving ourselves enough time for some Nathan's and Cyclone action before the gig.  If anyone out there is going, I'll be the big-ish guy with the messy/spiky hair in the obnoxious yellow Rockford t-shirt.  If by some freak of coincidence there happens to be someone else at the show who fits that description, I humbly apologize.

We had a great kick-off to our week of concerts of varying quality last night.  Initially, I had planned to blog about each gig the day after it happened, but looking at my schedule for the next few days I have no idea how I might even begin to pull that off.  Instead, I've decided to do it all next week and do it some justice, rather than slapping out some sloppy shit as we go just to say I did.  Be sure to check back in next week for some scribbles - and, if all goes according to plan - video diaries of our stay-at-home vacation week.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Trick Tuesday: "Busted" (1990)

Promo-only comic artwork - probably the best thing about this one, actually.
Forget about The Doctor, willya?  This, friends, is the true bottom of the barrel.  It’s the moment where Cheap Trick forgot one of life’s most valuable lessons: if you’re going to sell out, you’d best make sure that you get paid in the process.  It’s also one album that the perspective of time has done nothing to improve: it was a disappointment then, and it’s a stinky little pile of poo in the yard of the Cheap Trick discography even now.

In the summer of 1990, I turned sixteen years old.  Two years makes a lot of difference during that part of your life: I was two mid-teenage years savvier, I had been exposed to a lot more things, and I was becoming more independent.  I didn’t still love all the music I was into two years before, but I hung on to my love of Cheap Trick even as my other tastes were moving away from the metal of the day and more into punk and indie music.  To be teenaged is to be hardcore about things, not to mention unwittingly myopic.  So, for the time being, it was goodbye Iron Maiden, hello Hüsker Dü.  Au revior Metallica, bonjour Motörhead.  Later in life, the former two would become alphabetical roommates…and the latter switch I would still see as trading up.  No matter what the era of my tastes, however, Rockford’s most famous citizens somehow never lost their place at the table.

You need to understand how different things were before the internet became a part of our daily lives.  Things like release dates for albums could be fairly nebulous, especially if you were a teenager living in a town whose music needs were mostly served by the staff at Sam Goody’s Dorkatorium and Music Stand.  The answer to “when’s so-and-so coming out?” was never “oh, the first week in July” or “three weeks from now”; flawlessly, it was a quick, furtive glance at the new releases rack and a mumbled “try next week.”  And try next week I did, from sometime in the spring until June 27, 1990 (at least according to the album’s Amazon page.)  Rushed home, popped the tape in, and was confronted – and eventually overwhelmed – by suck.

It’s obvious that the Mensa candidates over at Epic Records were desperately hoping for Son of Lap of Luxury, as even a cursory listen to Busted hammers home.  Initially, there was reason to be hopeful: despite the production overkill, advance single “Can’t Stop Fallin’ into Love” was just the kind of smart, clever pop one would expect from Cheap Trick.  While it still would have sounded out of place on, say, Heaven Tonight, it was at least clearly the work of the band that turned in that classic.  The rest of the album, sadly, turned out to be a case of saving the best for first.  Let’s put it this way: seeing a “Mick Jones” credited as an additional musician on a Cheap Trick album, one would logically assume the reference was to the Clash guitarist.  In the case of Busted, we’re speaking instead of the guy from Foreigner, and therein lies the problem with the album in a nutshell.

Let’s be positive first, shall we: to be fair, there is an excellent five-song EP lurking within Busted, comprising the great, Stones-y opener “Back n’ Blue”, “Can’t Stop Falling into Love”, a gorgeous slow one co-starring Chrissie Hynde (“Walk Away”), the power-pop-tastic “Had to Make You Mine”, and the rave-up closer, a cover of Roy Wood’s “Rock n’ Roll Tonight” that had been a staple of the band’s early live sets.  Even at that, you’ll still need to track down “Walk Away” on a later compilation, in the version that doesn’t have Hynde largely dialed down at the record company’s request.  That’s the good stuff; the bad stuff is the rest of it, all of which falls into one of two categories: snoozy song-factory ballads that fail to relight “The Flame”, and half-hearted mid-tempo space-fillers.  In the latter category, a special demerit goes to “You Drive, I’ll Steer”, a song that clearly was once meant to be a title track for Lap of Luxury, and its lame, wishful-thinking mentions of both In Color and Heaven Tonight.  For shame, especially since the song sounds more like a Bon Jovi b-side than anything from either of those seminal works.

At the end of the day, every lengthy career has to have a nadir.  For Cheap Trick, Busted was it; sometimes, you’ve got to hit the pavement hard to realize you’ve set out on the wrong path.  Commercially, Busted went from sure-thing follow-up to huge tank in exactly the amount of time it took for people to hear the thing.  The numbers tell the story: as an advance single, “Can’t Stop Fallin’ into Love” peaked at a respectable number twelve on Billboard.  The album limped to number forty-eight*, and several follow-up singles all stiffed.  Back to the drawing board, then – and not a moment too soon, artistically speaking.

*weirdly, according to the bastion of truth that is Wikipedia, the album did go gold in Canada.  What gives, hosers?

Next week: waking up, groggy but feisty.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Crank Up the Digital U-Hauls

After nearly six months languishing with what has to be the worst name for a blog in all of blog-dom, I am happy to say that there are finally a few very worthy choices on the table for a real name for this thing.  Will Z’s Blog Thing was always a placeholder of a title, there because I had to pick one at the time and needed to eliminate one of my better excuses for not opening up this little corner of the inter-tubes.  Within the week, I’ll be settling on a new name for this blog.  You know, one that doesn’t make me cringe when I refer folks to it.

With the name change will come a move: willzsblogthing.blogspot.com will make way for whateverthenewnameis.blogspot.com.  Nothing to worry about, nor anything you’d be advised to set your clocks by, but definitely a thing in the “you should know” category for my esteemed visitors.

When I do move, I’ll be sure to leave plenty of digital bread crumbs so you can find your way.  If all goes according to plan, all of the content presently located here will move to the new site, and I’ll leave a forwarding address here at willzsblogthing.blogspot.com to my new digs.

Thank you for reading, and thank you in advance for following me when I move on up to a better-named neighborhood.

Beatles: "1" After 9/09

I have a tendency to surf a few of the more populated music discussion boards over my morning caffeine jolt.  I do this for two reasons: first, it’s a good way to find out what is either coming out or may have already been released that I need to keep an eye on the torrent trackers…um, I mean record stores for.  True, we’re talking strictly about mainstream and heritage rock and nothing else: if you want to, say, pre-orderthe forthcoming Samiam LP, or see if that Leatherface live album has finally made it into distribution here in the states, you’re outta luck, kid.  I don’t participate in these forums, mind you: honestly, I have nothing to add to a twenty page thread about the Bay City Rollers or the Monkees or whoever, but I do occasionally glean some useful information from them.

The second reason I read them is a bit more nefarious: they can be inadvertently hysterical.  I swear to you on every $2 vinyl LP in this room, dear readers, that I have never seen a group of people who seem to hate their chosen hobby more than the type of aging boomer-hipster doofi that hang out on internet music forums.  The second something is announced for reissue/re-release/re-packaging/reiteration, said item is met with a level of hand-wringing rarely seen outside of sweaty-palmed teenagers wondering if the pretty girl at the other end of the lunchroom might wanna go to Dairy Queen on Saturday or something.  They can’t believe that Album X is being re-released; don’t these stupid labels know that it just came out in SuperDuperPolymer format in Japan last month?  Besides, this version will probably be mastered poorly, all bright and screechy and brick-walled and whatever other no-good-meanie things engineers do to recordings these days to make them sound good as MP3s.  MP3s, incidentally, are digital Satan, not to be enjoyed by anybody other than THE DAMNED KIDS THESE DAYS, WHAT WITH THEIR LADY GAGA AND EVERYTHINGEverything – and I do mean everything – was better in the olden days, folks.  Like it or lump it.

Personally, I do neither.  I point and laugh at it, and thank god or whoever might be roaming around the sky for putting such entertaining shut-ins on the planet, and then giving me a window into which I might peer and gawk.  Let’s think about who we’ve got here, folks: music geeks – a group to which I admittedly belong and generally feel sympathetic toward – but in this case ones who feel that their prime has left them sitting lonely on the sidewalk, while the cool kid drives away with their best girl.  Jilted, they trudge on in, sit down at the computer, and commence being bitter.  The rest of the music crowd is busy somewhere being vibrant: seeing a show, hitting the bar, getting laid, generally following their personal course of misadventure to the end of the evening…or maybe doing something as simple as taking a walk on a gorgeous summer night with their iPod on blare.  Anything but ranting about the old days on the interweb; honestly, the plight of these folks who populate most of the music forums would be sad if they didn’t obviously sort of like it this way.  The image of the last-man-with-standards, alone in his darkened room, obviously appeals to these guys in some romantic way that I’m grateful eludes my comprehension.

Enough with the armchair psychology, and back to the cheap yuks.  Nothing gets these folks going quite like the Beatles.  Like clockwork, the announcement that Beatles 1, the 2000 hits compilation that introduced the fab four to a new generation eleven years ago, will see remastered reissue this September has been met with no small amount of consternation.  To wit, some of the most commonly cited dilemmas, and Armchair Psychiatrist Will’s handy helpful hints for coping with them successfully.  Folks, I don’t have a statue of Lucy Van Pelt on my desk for nothing. 

The above statement was not mere hyperbole.

“Why do I need this?  The 2000 CD sounds just fine to me.”  If that’s the case, then you don’t, in fact, need this at all and can spend your money on something else instead.  May I suggest the forthcoming Samiam LP or the Leatherface live album, or maybe just a good meal that doesn’t come from the Wendy’s drive-thru?

“Why would they even reissue this so soon?”  Simple: re-branding.  Beginning two years ago, with the 9/9/09 remasters, the Beatles catalog was brought into focus via attractive, well-designed, matching packaging and consistent sound quality.  This is nothing more than EMI’s move to bring the one mega-popular item missing from that product overhaul in line with the rest of it.

“I can just compile this from the remasters I already own.”  Indeed, you probably can.  An hour or two spent with a hobby you enjoy is always a good way to kill time on a rainy weekend afternoon.  I’d advise you to go for it.

“Who does EMI expect to buy this, anyway?”  The same people who’ve always bought Beatles 1: those looking for a simple, relatively complete single-disc greatest hits collection by the most popular rock band of all time.  Sorry, collector-friends, but you are not – and have never been – the target audience for this one.  A lot of people simply want a batch of the most beloved Beatles tunes in one place: no fuss, no muss, no catalog to delve through, and no mono boxed sets.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, either.  The short answer to your question, then: not you.

“Why all the re-hashes?  Why not put out some unreleased material?”  Try to follow the bouncing ball here: EMI is a for-profit corporation, one that is having trouble staying afloat in a particularly volatile field.  Given the choice between refreshing a perennially popular item, or dumping a whole bunch of money into a niche release, the financially correct option is pretty clear.

“I’m a completist.  I simply must have this, and it will make me extremely happy to add another piece to my Beatles collection.”  Good for you, my friend.  Enjoy.

“I’m a completist.  I simply must have this, and I am MAD AS HELL about having to buy the same things over and over.”  I’d like you to seriously consider the following: the reason corporations continue to revamp popular products is that people are willing to buy them again and again.  Should said products decline in popularity, the corporations that produce them will begin to explore other potential profit streams.  In other words: you say you want a revolution?  Vote with your wallet.