I did not see David Letterman this particular evening, but I clearly remember my buddy Steve describing this performance 15 years later one afternoon at Euclid Records. Kids, this is why a lot of us back in the day had our asses so heavily kicked by REM. “So. Central Rain” (The song “too new to be named”) is one of my favorite records ever.
A funny thing happened to me inbetween sorting new stuff from newbie hipsters like The Walkmen and The Copyrights. I was truly minding my own business, when I got an email from my friend Ellen asking if I’d heard the new Cheap Trick album.
Of course I hadn’t. I’d heard their 1997 “comeback” disc with Steve Albini producing, and frankly I thought it had about two good songs. I’d heard The Trick’s 2003 album, and thought it was even worse, an overly-obvious attempt to try to capture a sound that they’d forever lost, a tired-sounding, old-sounding band sounding the notes without capturing even an iota of the spirit that made them so great once upon a time.
So no, I hadn’t heard the new Cheap Trick album, and neither did I really much care to. “Check it out, VH1 is streaming it right now. It’s called Rockford.” She followed that with “I think it might be my favorite Trick record since In Color.” This from a person who still love Cheap Trick dearly, but was also even more critical of the band’s alleged recent comeback than me. That carries some weight, so I decided to check it out.
Rockford came out Tuesday. Picked up my copy, and the first song, “Welcome To The World” did nothing for me–sounded like the worst excesses of the last two discs, kind of. The second song–the single, “Perfect Strangers” came up, and I took notice. I heard glimmerings in this song of everything that love about classic Cheap Trick, a certain indefinable timelessness; “Strangers” has towering hooks married to an insistent backbeat and ripping guitars. I was intrigued.
“Intrigued” doesn’t even cover it when the next two songs came up. “If It Takes A Lifetime” was just named by Little Steven Van Zant as “the coolest song in the universe”. I can’t argue. Stealing a riff and feel that sounds like Pyromania! era Def Leppard and giving it the full Cheap Trick treatment, “Lifetime” soars on an incredible Robin Zander call-and-response vocal with Rick Neilsen and Tom Petersson that sounds like it was lifted straight out of the Heaven Tonight songbook.
“Come On Come On Come On” (not to be confused with the similarly-named song from the olden CT days) hits next, and knocked me flat against the wall. Sounding like Kurt Cobain on a triple espresso, Zander rips through the vocal while Neilsen’s guitar threatens to blow speaker cones. Best of all the rhythm section of Petersson and Bun E. Carlos (who in recent releases sounded especially laggard) sound like a couple of adolescents whipping through a hardcore raveup.
As long as we’re referencing past moments of Trick glory, “O Claire” (no not that older song by them) comes afterwards, a delicate, quieter song that builds into a majestic Beatlesque ballad that sounds like the best song Brendan Benson or Jon Brion left off their latest discs.
I’m not gonna do a track-by-track rundown here. The whole damn record is so good that words aren’t gonna do it any justice anyway. What I will say is that what made Cheap Trick so very, very great back in the day was an undefinable element. It existed in the edgy insistence of “He’s A Whore”, the majestic choruses of “Dream Police” and “Voices”, the anthemic visceral rush of “Surrender” and “Southern Girls”. It was a fuel mixture of those elements, combined with an iconic and inherent showmanship that translated their live sound so well to the studio. Swirled into that mix was a veneer of fun, lame as that word sounds to describe music.
Whatever that element was, it went missing from Cheap Trick somewhere in the 1980′s, and seemed to be forever gone. No more. Rockford is completely brilliant, one of the best rock and roll records I’ve heard this year, and the best Trick studio album since Heaven Tonight. Rick Neilsen remains a guitar god. Tom Petersson and Bun E. Carlos reclaim their status as one of rock’s unsung great rhythm sections. Robin Zander…Oh lordy. Robin Zander reclaims a throne he never really lost. He truly is the greatest living frontman in all of rock. There is no lead singer I can think of who can belt it out like this.
Kudos to The Trick. Rockford is absolutely the perfect summer album, and arrived just in time. Run, don’t walk, down to your local record shoppe and snag a copy now.
(You can hear Rockford at the band’s homepage: http://www.cheaptrick.com)