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.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Sadly Inevitable Amy Winehouse Obituary


Not exactly the surprising news story of the year, I grant you; really, it was just a matter of time until Winehouse went back to black for good.  Still, it’s sad that the inevitable has come to pass: behind all of the drug-crazed behavior and the attendant tabloid frenzy, Winehouse really did have talent to burn.  I’m hardly shaking and crying or anything, but it is sad to watch someone whose artistic gifts came linked with a Sysiphusian burden ultimately fall down and let their stone roll back down the hill for good.  From my completely unqualified position as desk-chair psychologist, it seems to me that Winehouse died because she had to.  Some people simply can’t break their addictions, and it’s really as simple –and as sad – as that.

Of course, my fellow desk-chair psychologist Netizens have a wide array of varying diagnoses.  Let’s have a look at them, shall we?

“Good riddance to an untalented drug addict.  Stupid junkie deserved to die.”  This one’s a particular favorite over at the baby-boomer skewing music forums; the “all post-1975 music sucks” style inter-joints.  It’s not a crowd noted for its sympathy or, for that matter, native intelligence, and their reaction is as predictable as it is pungent.  In order, then.  “Untalented”: not hardly.  Personal taste is of course subjective, but by any reasonable standard Back to Black was one of the ‘00s more memorable – and emotionally charged – pop albums.  “Drug addict”: indeed.  The music you love was largely created by them, actually.  “Deserved to die”: bleech.  Seeing as how most of these guys worship the ground the Beatles walked upon, let’s rock a little hypothetical situation here.  By many accounts, John Lennon spent much of the ‘70s smacked out of his gourd.  Had he met his fate through his own actions, rather than dying at the hands of an (ahem) crazed fan, would these same folks be prattling on about how much he “deserved to die”?  Methinks not.

“OMG.  I loved her music so much.  I’m literally crying as I write this.”  I admired Back to Black, but was no super-fan and am thusly not expelling tears as I type right now.  Still, I get this one and have nothing nasty to say about it.  It’s not surprising that Winehouse’s brand of tune inspired such reactions: anything that honest and that pleading is likely to.  I feel honestly bad for this crowd, even if the fallen star in question isn’t one I personally wish upon.

“You know, she was twenty-seven years old.  That’s when they all die.”  Please spare me the urban legend drivel, okay?  Billy Bragg – always a man who can be counted on as a beacon of intelligence in a sea of dim-witted peers – hit the nail on the head in the Associated Press story linked above: “It's not age that Hendrix, Jones, Joplin, Morrison, Cobain & Amy have in common.  It's drug abuse, sadly.”  Amen.  When you’re star-crossed from the start and hell-bent on living fast, dying young, and to hell with your corpse, it’s a safe bet that statistically speaking, your end will come in your mid to late twenties.  Et voila: twenty-seven.  To put it another way: Aleister Crowley appeared to me in a vision last night, urging me to tell you to knock off the quasi-mystical crap…and to acknowledge heroin for what it is, what it does, and the average life span of its enthusiasts.

In short: to the bereaved, I’m sorry. To the judgmentally smug, I hope you are soon thrown from your moral high horses.  To the fans of the so-called Twenty-Seven club, give the hippie-dippy voodoo a rest and face the facts, would you?  Perhaps most importantly, to those who’ve let the circus-like atmosphere that surrounded Winehouse during her life understandably deter you from hearing Back to Black, go give it a download.  Taken strictly as music, as it should be, it’s a remarkable work.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

"That's How She Answers the Phone."

This is absolutely, 100% brilliant.  Usually, I'm a firm believer in the idea that's it's difficult to go home again artistically, that most sequels probably didn't ever need to be made.  If all of the new Beavis and Butt-Head is as good as this sneak preview, I'll happily eat my words.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Re-Rip Chronicles: Jellyfish, "Bellybutton"

Or: Now He Knows He’s Wrong.

I’ve always had a bit of a weird relationship with this album.  The band’s follow-up and swan song, 1993’s Spilt Milk, has always been one of the great flawed masterpieces of the ‘90s in my book, but I’ve always sort of cast this debut aside as fairly mediocre.  I know it’s  got a rabid cult of followers who think it’s some kind of high holy grail for power pop, but I’ve always just sort of passed it over as being a bit too wimpy, a smidge too self-consciously cute.

It’s funny; for all that I’m a Cheap Trick obsessive, I’ve never been much of a power-pop fan in general.  Sure, I dig the really great stuff – Big Star, Posies, the always undervalued Supergrass, even Spilt Milk for that matter – but most alleged power-pop simply has too much vapid pop and not enough raw power for my tastes.  I know some people live and die by the pretty harmonies, but I’m only a fan of them when they’re icing on the cake of a well-written song, rather than a shiny decoy to distract from weak songwriting.

For several years, I dismissed Jellyfish in general as exactly that: a big, shiny, well-buffed box of nothing.  This had everything to do with the main single and video from this album, “Baby’s Coming Back”, which I still don’t care for at all.  I do try to look past image in rock ‘n’ roll as much as I can, but sometimes in life you’ve just got to recognize and acknowledge patterns.  For me, bands full of hippies wearing silly hats rarely generate music that I’m going to like at all.  Unfair?  A bit, I’m sure, but a correct assumption at least ninety-five percent of the time.  By my standards, the video for “Baby’s Coming Back” was an absolute nightmare.  The song itself wasn’t much better, sounding like something akin to Paul McCartney’s most vacuous Wings material slightly goosed up on poor quality, heavily diluted truck-stop speed.  Friend after friend told me I was wrong, that the Cheap Trick fan in me needed to hear this album, but no dice: video and single were such stinkers that I simply didn’t care to know more.

Flash forward two years: I’m watching 120 Minutes on MTV late one Sunday night, and walk in halfway on a video for something that does actually sound kinda like Cheap Trick.  I recoiled in horror when the band/title card came up at clip’s end: oh god, not that dopey band with the stupid hats.  A week or two later, I found a cheap copy somewhere in Greenwich Village, took the plunge, and was wowed.  Sufficiently wowed, that is, to swallow my pride and backtrack to the first album…which I still didn’t like.  Three good songs, nothing more, kept in the collection for reference, life goes on.

This morning was probably the first time I’ve spun Bellybutton front to back in about a decade or so, and to say I was pleasantly surprised by its quality would be a serious understatement.  Maybe I just needed enough time to forget how silly they looked in their videos, who knows, but eight of the album’s ten songs qualify as first-rate quirk-pop.  Calling this stuff power-pop really does it a bit of a disservice, I think; honestly, Jellyfish don’t really do power.  Likewise, the eternal Cheap Trick comparison is largely inaccurate: while the Trick were undoubtedly an influence on these guys, the heavier end of Cheap Trick’s sound, the end that shared some aesthetic values with punk rock, is completely missing from the stew concocted by main Jellyfishers Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning.  This band really had its own vibe and sound, which explains both their relative commercial failure in their time and the continuing interest that keeps their music in print and alive years after their dissolution.  Seriously: how many bands who only left behind two LPs eventually become the subject of a four CD boxed set?

Let’s get the trouble spots out of the way first: I still dislike “Baby’s Coming Back” for the exact same reason I’ve never felt even the smallest compulsion to download a solo Paul McCartney album for free, let alone buy one.  Leave the saccharine in my diet soda, thanks.  “Bedspring Kiss” is a lengthy-feeling art-drone that never really reaches any kind of release; I get where they were going with it, but the execution is fumbled a bit too far into boring territory.  Happily, the band was considerate enough to group the two clunkers together near the end of the record.  Just don’t turn it off after track seven, though, or you’ll miss closer “Calling Sarah”, one of the album’s easy highlights.

Most of Bellybutton is comprised of bright, bouncy pop that diverts attention away from some fairly dark lyrical themes; it’s a style that’s a cliché when it’s done without panache and a wonder when it’s pulled off well, as this band does.  Still, the album’s most poignant moment for me is the one that’s not like all the rest: “I Wanna Stay Home” slows the pace appropriately for an ode to melancholy that’s somehow, against all odds and logic, oddly uplifting in its despair.  Even back when I still thought little of the album as a whole, this particular cut more often than not made the “slow song” slot on one side of my mix tapes.

When it comes to non-mainstream music, cults can be a pain in the ass.  Listen to a cult artist’s aficionados talk long enough, and the music will never live up to the hype once you’ve heard it.  I still don’t quite buy that Bellybutton is the greatest power-pop album of all time.  Sorry, cultists, but that’s In Color – or, fine, maybe Radio City.  Either way, deal with it and move on.  But ‘90s alternative (in the true sense of that word) pop doesn’t get much finer than Bellybutton, at least not until its follow-up.

Whatever you do, just don’t make the same mistake that I did and watch the video for “Baby’s Coming Back” before hearing the rest of the album, and end up depriving yourself of what it's really got to offer for years before coming around.  Try this one for “The King is Half Undressed” instead; sure, there’s still plenty of dumb hats and silly clothes to go around, but at least the song is great.

New Series: The Re-Rip Chronicles

Over the past month or two, I’ve begun ripping my CD collection bit by bit in lossless FLAC format to an external hard drive.  My reasons for embarking on this hopelessly geeky endeavor are twofold: I’d like to move into the twenty-first century, and I’d also like to let some of my lesser-played discs go live in boxes up in the attic and reclaim some space from the jaws of the clutter-monster.  I’m not convinced I’m looking to sell the stuff: honestly, it took me too long to track it all down back in the pre-download days.  What’s more, used CD’s are all but worthless at this point, and I don’t really see that changing in the future.  Still, this is 2011: how many decade-at-least-old import CD singles does one really need at arm’s length, practically speaking?

Because this task is as mind-numbingly tedious as it is hopelessly geeky, I do it in fits and starts, generally as the mood hits me to listen to something I haven’t really dusted off in a while.  I rip the album I wanted to listen to, cue the files up for playback in Winamp, and rip whatever else I’ve got hanging around by that artist while I listen and do whatever else on the computer.  As a result, I’ve listened to a lot of music I really haven’t spun in some time.  In this new occasional series, I’ll discuss and review albums that really strike me as I hear them again: ones I’ve either over- or underrated or ones that I’m just happy to report still sound as great as ever.

So, will this occasional series last a bit longer than such one-entry wonders as Old Favorites (which this series will largely replace) or Grampa Will’s College Tips (which I’ll be restarting as the back-to-school sales hit full frenzy in the next few weeks, no doubt)?  We shall see.  Never let it be said that the Blog Thing doesn’t love its meaningless suspense.

Cheap Trick Stage Collapse: Audio Recording

If any of you are curious and have an account on dimeadozen.org, there's a really high quality audience audio recording of the Ottawa Bluesfest fiasco up there right now.  Direct link right here, but it probably won't work unless you have an account on that site and are signed in.  (For those of you following the comments thread, "fillyrboots" = me.)

The fun starts just after 2:30 in on "Tonight It's You": you can hear the wind start blowing, then some/all of the stage amplification drops out.  The band cuts the song short, albeit seamlessly; seconds later, you can hear the stage collapse.  The taper leaves his rig running for another three minutes or so afterwords, capturing the ensuing chaos and some of the comments of the crowd: "We just watched Cheap Trick die."

Thank god for adrenaline-soaked overstatement.  As it turns out, they'll live to play a free gig at Coney Island on August 18th.  If the stage there is built half as well as the Cyclone, we'll be good to go.  See ya there.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Trick Tuesday: "Next Position Please" (1983)

Honestly, you could probably just snag one of these from a dollar bin somewhere and be just fine.
I promised myself when I sat down to write this entry that I would not do as every other reviewer under the sun has done and refer to this album as Next Producer Please.  Whether making that my opening sentence constitutes having kept my pledge or not is up to you, dear readers.  Regardless, it is a phrase that I wish one of the members of Cheap Trick had uttered somewhere along the line while recording this one.

I realize that I’m about to risk courting the fury of Todd Rundgren’s cult of worshipers, nearly all of whom I’d assume are also internet aficionados, but his production job here is one of the lousiest I’ve ever heard on a major label album: paper thin, screechy, and utterly devoid of both guitar and bottom end.  Judging by the humorous cover photo, Rick Nielsen and new bassist Jon Brant seem to have been present when the album was recorded, but all that seems to have made it to tape are Robin Zander’s vocals and Bun E. Carlos’ drums.  Sure, those two are amongst the finest rock music has to offer at their particular stations, but they really sound so much better when their buddies are actually audible.  The whole thing has always sounded like an extreme overreaction to One on One’s production bombast; unfortunately, the band are neither heavy metal, as that album’s producer seemed to think, nor Rick Springfield-ish AM radio lite-rock, as Rundgren seems hell-bent on typecasting them here.

As a batch of songs, Position is good but not great.  At twelve songs (on vinyl) or fourteen (on cassette and subsequently CD), it’s two to four songs too long.  Three are for the all-time mix tape: Robin Zander’s exquisite single “I Can’t Take It”, the title track, which had been kicking around since Dream Police but at least manages cut through the production choke-hold and rock a bit, and Rundgren’s written-to-order “Heaven’s Falling”, a brilliant pastiche of Nielsen’s own songwriting style that’s so good that it nearly redeems Rundgren’s poor production choices elsewhere on the album.  On the flip side of all of that, there are two real clunkers: “Dancing the Night Away”, a lackluster cover of a song by new-wave also-rans the Motors inserted into the album from a non-Rundgren session at Epic Records’ unfortunate insistence, and “3D”, which is essentially part two of One on One’s also-terrible “I Want Be Man”.  The rest just kind of floats by on a wave of hazy production: some of it a bit more memorable (“Borderline” – which the band has redeemed in recent live shows in a harder rocking arrangement – and the dopily titled “Y.O.Y.O.Y”), most of it a bit less.  In the final wrap-up, Next Position Please is the textbook standard of a mediocre album; it’s a wonder it didn’t come complete with a hype sticker loudly proclaiming “NEITHER HERE NOR THERE!” or “DOESN’T QUITE SUCK!” or “THEY SHOULDA FIRED RUNDGREN!” or something.

I’ll say this much for it, though: it fit my mood when I first acquired it just fine.  I was a couple of months into my freshman year of high school; the experience wasn’t particularly new and quasi-exciting anymore, but the fun of the holiday season was still a bit too far out of reach.  Likewise, I was a couple of months into the onset of full-bore adolescence: neither hormonally charged all the time nor black-hole-soul depressed in that way only kids in high school can truly be, I was just trying to float by and figure out what the hell was going on with me and my world, and how to navigate it all.  I was just okay, nothing more or less, and so was my new Cheap Trick tape.  We were all all right, I suppose, just in a less enthusiastic way than that phrase had been uttered a few albums, and a few months, prior.  Likewise, it would get worse before it got better for both pubescent me and Cheap Trick, but once it got better it would do so in a way that hardly needed a hype sticker to announce its quality.

Next week: The next producer is promising, but will it really just be singles-plus-filler anyway?  Standing on the edge of a cliffhanger, we are.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Bringing the House Down, A Tad Too Literally

Cheap Trick Manager: 'I Can't Believe We're Alive'

Look, I know I'm about to start getting into the lesser lights of their discography in my ongoing Trick Tuesday series and all, but it's not like they had to up and nearly die over it or anything.  Next Position Please isn't that bad an album.

Kidding aside, I'm glad that the band, and from most accounts the vast majority of the audience and crew, escaped with minimal injuries to their persons.  The photos and videos of this floating around the intertubes are scary looking stuff.

EDIT: On the (I guess) positive side of all of this, it's not every day my boys make my ISP's start page (click on the image to enlarge):


EDIT #2: Fascinating walk-through-the-aftermath, taken and narrated by Robin Zander:

Thursday, July 14, 2011

New Mekons tune!

I know, I know, it's a bit like seeing that aunt and uncle you don't really dig so much but are obligated to visit every so often, but you absolutely owe it to yourself to wander on over to Pitchfork and avail yourself of their free teaser MP3 from the forthcoming Mekons album, Ancient and Modern, due in September.

This song - which I saw them preview a work-in-progress version of two years ago at the Mercury Lounge - is an absolute stormer, surprisingly Mekons Rock 'n' Roll-era sounding given the folkier leanings of their also-excellent recent work.  I'm sure that the album will be all over the map, as is the Mekons' wont and rare talent, but I've gotta admit: a whole album, or at least most of one, that sounds like this would be highly excellent.

Direct link right here, so you don't really have to spend all that much time with Aunt and Uncle Pitchfork.  You're welcome.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Trick Tuesday: "One on One" (1982)


All kidding aside, though, the sentiment is right on: One on One is truly a bright start to Cheap Trick’s dark ages, generally considered to begin with this album and run through either 1990’s Busted or its 1992 successor, Woke Up with a Monster.  It’s a period in which the band unquestionably lost their way and, seemingly, their confidence, bouncing like a pinball between producers for a series of albums whose quality and personality were wildly erratic.  No band looks at forty without a few clunkers in their discography, folks, and Tom Petersson’s 1980 departure (after the recording of All Shook Up, but before its release) signaled Cheap Trick’s merge onto a far more pothole laden highway than the one they’d cruised down until that point.

Petersson’s replacement came in the person of one Jon Brant.  He’s the unfamiliar looking gentleman with the unfortunate Camaro mullet in the upper left corner of the album cover.  We’ll talk about him a bit more in our next installment: truth be told, most of One on One was recorded prior to Brant’s drafting and, as such, most of the bass on the album was overdubbed by Rick Nielsen.  The results of this are predictable: it’s there, totally competent, and completely unremarkable compared to Petersson’s distinctive tone and upfront style.

In many ways, One on One has always seemed like a direct reaction to All Shook Up; whereas that album was about concept and sonics, One on One brings it all back to short, loud, direct and clever songwriting.  Interviews of the period suggest that Nielsen envisioned One on One as Cheap Trick’s punk-ish album, and the songwriting for the most part bears that out: everything is loud and punchy, and nothing hangs around much past the three-and-a-half minute mark.  While it’s a strong B-level album, two flies in the ointment keep it just out of front-line territory: one lousy song, and an unsympathetic production job.

Judging by the sound of the album, the usually reliable producer Roy Thomas Baker simply didn’t understand Cheap Trick or its aesthetic at all.  This is not to suggest that Baker is either incompetent or some hack; actually, he’s generally a first-rate technician.  “Bohemian Rhapsody”?  Him – and whether or not that particular song is your cup of tea, it is an astonishing bit of production.  Chalk it up to bad chemistry, I suppose, but it seems that Baker considered Cheap Trick essentially a metal band at heart, something akin to a poppier Judas Priest, and produced the album accordingly.  The clash (pun somewhat intended) between the three-chord minimalism of most of the songs and the wall-of-reverb, screaming guitar and cannon-shot drum production style is completely disconcerting at first.  Even once you’re used to it, it’s still a bit ill-fitting.

I’ve always been an advocate of not letting crap production get in the way of hearing great songs, though, and great songs are what comprise ten-elevenths of One on One.  The two famous ones were the minor hits/early MTV mainstays “If You Want My Love” and “She’s Tight”, both of which still rank among the band’s finest singles.  The former is one of the great Beatles pastiches of all time; had Paul McCartney’s actual solo material sounded as full and as ballsy as this, I might not recoil in horror at the thought of having to listen to any of it.  The latter is pure fun: two minutes and fifty-eight seconds of clever double entendres and a guitar riff so perfectly dumb that four years later those hair-brains in Poison would claim they wrote it, apply far less clever, single-entendre-if-that lyrics to it, and launch their obnoxious, useless career with “Talk Dirty to Me.”  That bit of thievery is probably the largest looming of the many reasons I’ve always considered them the lousiest excuse for a popular rock band of the last thirty years, but I digress.

Most of the album tracks are winners as well.  I’ll never quite understand how the powers that be at Epic Records missed “Time is Runnin’” as a potential third single, and all of my Cheap Trick mix tapes, cd’s, and playlists through the years have had plenty of space for the likes of “Love’s Got a Hold On Me”, the horn-driven “Oo La La La”, and the roaring title track.  Everything is at least good, and frequently great, until the next to last song, “I Want Be Man”, which is so bad that it actually manages to knock my overall assessment of the album down a peg.  Hey, Rick: leave the robot stories to those losers in Styx, okay?  Domo arigato.  Even with that, One on One really is far better than its so-so reputation would have you believe.  It’s their best second-tier album, the one to move on to once you’re through all the true classics.

My teenaged assessment of the album was much the same: very good, often listened to, just a slight notch below great.  It was, however, the source of my first bit of collector-nerd disappointment: in the Encyclopedia of Rock-style book that served as my Sherpa through the initial stages of my music geekdom in those pre-internet days, it made mention of One on One having been available both as red vinyl and as a picture disc.  For about a year, I looked inside every jacket I came across, coming away disappointed every time.  Eventually, I figured out that the book in question was published in England, and that such treasures were not likely to be found in the el-cheapo US Nice Price reissues that populated the store shelves of the late ‘80s.  I eventually came across the picture disc: at $75 on the wall of a store, it was too rich for my blood and, as such, my Dream Police picture disc still lives a solitary existence.  As for the red vinyl, nope, still never seen one.  On the other hand, Rhea did give me a particularly nice Japanese first pressing for Christmas a few years back, and it’s one of the best sounding slabs o’ wax I’ve ever heard; far less boomy-sounding than any other version I’ve listened to.  If vinyl is your thing, I heartily recommend it.
For all you vinyl-hounds straining to make it out, that catalog number is 25-3P-358.  Happy eBaying!
Next week: the downward slide gains momentum.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Health? Fair.

Oh my dear lord or whoever else may be in heaven, this sucks.

I guess I’d better explain.  I’m on about the sixth day or so of going whole-hog into healthy eating.  I’ve mentioned here and there on the Blog Thing before that I’ve been watching what I’ve been eating a bit more, and that has been the truth as far as it goes.  I’ve been pretty half-assed about it, honestly: a few days of watching what I was eating, and then “ah well, I’ve been good, how ‘bout burgers”, lather, rinse, repeat.  It was certainly better than doing nothing at all, and I did lose some weight at it, but a particularly debaucherous July 4th weekend, and the resulting two-day stomach-ache that followed, convinced me to join Team Healthy for real.  Goodbye things that were really only a step or two divorced from DiGiorno Pizza and Cookies, hello multi-grain flax bread!

Also, at least for the last day or so, goodbye sanity, hello GREEEAAAERRRGHHH!!!  As my body is rocked by, and begins to roll with, these massive changes, my moods and energy levels change lanes rapidly, at will, without signals.  The two most common modes I’m operating in are (1) lethargic, hungry, and mentally on the moon, and (2) FEELING LIKE I HAVE BECOME THE HEALTHIEST, MOST FIT AND ENERGETIC MAN ON THE FACE OF THE PLANET EARTH!  Neither of these feelings is particularly enjoyable or productive.  To wit: I started to sketch out tomorrow’s Trick Tuesday installment twice this afternoon.  First, while in lethargy land, I ended up with the least promising first line I’ve ever written:  “One on One: you know, that’s a pretty solid album.”  Ehh, no.  Second pass, this time in SUPER ACTIVE MAN mode, I ended up with a sentence that lasted a paragraph and said nothing at all intelligible, save maybe for establishing that Cheap Trick did, in 1982, issue an LP entitled One on One.  Ehh, no, again; I promise you, dear readers, that the published piece will spare you both of the above misfires.

I went through all of this once before, back in the late ‘90s, at which time I was very successful for about a year or so, but was simply too much in my mid 20s to really take it all the way.  That time, the manic stuff lasted about three or four days, after which everything became a lot easier.  Here’s hoping that the intervening decade-and-a-piece hasn’t altered that time table too much; honestly, knowing that I’m halfway through the obnoxious part would be truly excellent.

At this point, I’ve begun to yawn – and, as such, diminished coherence probably isn’t too far behind.  Best at this point to raise a glass of sugar free lemonade to you, dear readers, in hope for an easier day tomorrow.  Should any of you find yourselves at Checkers this evening, enjoy one for me, would ya?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

New Leatherface live album stream


Available right here, all ye lovers of gravel-voiced punk wisdom.  It's too late right now for me to dive into this one without risking being awake until the dawn, but I'll be doing the review thing tomorrow or Friday, once I've had a chance to sink into it a bit.  No bonus points awarded for predicting a big ol' positive: this is easily the album I've most been looking forward to this summer.

New to Leatherface?  Ahh, it's also too late in the evening for me to even begin to give 'em the introduction they so richly deserve, but try this on for size: think Tom Waits, Motörhead, and Hüsker Dü all at the same time, and then imagine such a thing actually being great.  It's an acquired taste for sure, but those of us who manage to pick it up don't generally ever want to let it go.

Huge thanks to Amp Magazine for making it available before my pre-order ships!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Century City, Baby!

Just a brief, self-congratulatory post to commemorate the fact that, during the course of this morning's blogging spree, we have reached one hundred posts here at the Blog Thing since its launch four months ago.  Not a bad pace, if I do say so myself.

As always, thank you for taking the time to stop by and read.

Camping and Pets

Remember our dear friend Harold Camping, the Christian radio mogul who just can’t seem to get his math right regarding the end of the world?  I’ll bet you didn’t think we’d be discussing him again anytime soon, did you?  Me either, but the link I’m about to send you to is truly extraordinary.

This is the website of Eternal Earth-Bound Pets USA, a work of mad atheistic capitalist genius.  For a very reasonable fee of $135, these kind, godless souls will adopt and care for your domestic pets once you’ve been flown up into the sky to go and live with Jesus and his pals.  They will take your left-behind doggie or kitten into their homes and love, feed, and care for them as their own, seeing as how neither they nor your pet are going to find themselves flying heaven-ward anytime soon anyway.

This is just utterly brilliant on so many levels.  I love the fact that this particular fleecing of the flock actually provides a very real, if not exactly probably useful, service.  That’s certainly more than Camping or his followers could have said for themselves prior to May 21st.  I also love the fact that it ties into the idea that your pet could not possibly be raptured given that, according to most Catholic and Christian belief systems, animals do not possess souls.  While there are many reasons that organized religion will never be my particular bowl of cereal, this is one of my favorites: just gotta preserve our supposed superiority to all other living things, don’t we o faithful ones?  I have looked long and hard into the eyes of Casey, my parents’ beloved Labradoodle, on many occasions.  I am utterly convinced, and will stand behind the notion, that if there is indeed such a thing as a soul, my best-est four-legged buddy has one and then some.  No need to just take my word for it, though.  Judge for yourself:

The author and his friend.  Try to guess who's who!
Given this assertion, not to mention most of the other ones available on this blog, it is unlikely that I’ll ever require Eternal Earth-Bound Pets USA’s services.  Should the rapture actually occur, I’m pretty sure that I’ll find myself down here with the rest of y’all, and will be able to care for Casey myself.  That’s fine with me, actually: between all the cute doggies and kittens and brilliant, laugh-out-loud funny writing like Eternal Earth-Bound Pets’ FAQ page, I’d say that those of us left behind won’t be particularly hard up for entertainment.

Movie Monday: "Larry Crowne"

Note: Rhea and I actually went to the movies last night; something about wanting to avoid all the idiots and their traffic jams at any of our various local fireworks displays coupled with the fact that we’ve been promising ourselves a night at the cinema for about six months now.  Would that our acumen for avoiding dopey partiers were as sharp as our ability to pick a decent flick to watch.  To wit:

Ego and star power are amazing things.  The former allows celebrities to create products that would never pass any sort of normal quality control, and the latter allows the resulting faulty projects to not only come to fruition, but also to be marketed and promoted on the grandest scale possible.  Forget about the alleged plot: this is the actual story of Larry Crowne.

From the perspective of the bean counters, it’s easy to see how such an unmitigated disaster of a film gets unleashed upon the public: Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts’ popularity is universal enough to sell tickets to just about anything they attach themselves to, so why should the studio concern itself with quality?  Just count the cash and never mind the fact that the script may as well have been printed on a slice of Swiss cheese that somehow wandered into a game of Chicken Blaster.

Don’t get me wrong: I was hardly expecting Shakespeare from a summer-blockbuster contending romantic comedy.  What I was expecting was something agreeably lightweight, something along the lines of Hanks’ previous outing as writer/director, That Thing You Do, a film that will never exactly be nominated for a screenwriting award, but one that was completely successful within its agreeably modest artistic scope.  This time, Hanks co-wrote with My Big Fat Greek Wedding creator Nia Vardalos; together, the pair managed to turn in a script rife with inconsistencies, poorly developed characters, and a frequently plodding sense of pacing, all smothered in a heaping helping of clichés.

Within the first five minutes, Hanks’ titular character is smarmily downsized from his job at the Wal-Mart, here referred to as “U Mart” assumedly for legal reasons.  According to the store’s smug managers, Crowne is let go after twenty years because he has never attended college, which is hardly a logical reason to be fired from a retail position.  The firing scene itself aspires to humor and poignancy, achieving neither.  By the time Crowne is on his way home to sulk, we still aren’t sure just who this guy is: is he a smart guy who just got derailed along the way?  An underachiever?  A Forrest Gump type of character?  By film’s end, we’re still not sure: his lack of higher education is inadequately explained away by his having been a chef in the Navy for twenty years, a back-story patch-job that does nothing to actually enhance or explain Crowne’s character.  Personally, I found myself still unsure whether or not I actually liked Crowne by the end of the movie, certainly another large script problem for a cute romantic comedy.

Utterly predictably, Larry’s canning leads him to enroll in college, where he drives a scooter, falls in with a wholesomely bad crowd, and gradually falls in love with his Speech professor, Mercedes Tainot (Roberts).  The fact that I just had to double check this character’s name with Wikipedia, despite having seen the film less than twelve hours ago, should tell you all you need to know about how well developed said character is. Surly and bitter from the get-go, Tainot’s paper-thin back-story involves a shiftless, porn-addicted husband, portrayed by Bryan Cranston.  It wasn’t until about half an hour after his introduction that I realized that Cranston’s character was supposed to be a freeloading jerk; at first, I (and the rest of the sparse crowd, judging from their reactions) saw him as a guy who’d been henpecked to the point of surrender, and empathized with him.  In terms of script-writing and character/plot development, this is a fairly resounding failure.  From there, the story proceeds precisely as you’d expect it to, bloated out to one hour and forty minutes’ length by several scenes that blather on long after the audience has gotten the point several times over.  Think of it as the screenwriting equivalent of Hamburger Helper, there to make something mundane more plentiful, but not any higher in quality.

About the only positive thing I can say about Larry Crowne is that is very well acted: Hanks, Roberts and Cranston are all fine performers regardless of their involvement with this turkey, and the supporting cast all tear into their poorly defined roles with true aplomb.  It is unfortunate that this gifted ensemble wasn’t given anything more to sink their teeth into than a script that would never have conceivably passed muster had Hanks’ name and drawing power not been attached to it from go.  Sadly, about the only fun to be had with Larry Crowne is to find yourself watching it with a quick-witted friend in what will inevitably be a mostly empty theater, giving it the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment that it so richly deserves.  However you see it, rest assured that you will be laughing at it, not with.