I don’t think I’ve been as conflicted about a new release from a legacy act as I am with this, the return of Cheap Trick. I’ll get to the problems momentarily, but first I will look on the bright side. There is no reason why this band had to make an album this good at this point. (What’s the album called?) Sounds insane to say as every album should always strive to be good, but this record offers up songs that stand very comfortably with some of Cheap Trick’s best. All the parts are indeed in working order. Rick Nielsen gets to indulge in serious rock stompage, as is his long-stated desire. The guitars throughout the record roar mostly, but also feature textural qualities some might not expect from a Cheap Trick effort. The punctuation that pokes through the chorus of the moody “When I Wake Up Tomorrow” is the best example of the diversity. And the poppy “No Direction Home” will fit neatly alongside “Dream Police” when the band takes these new songs on the road. (What’s the album called??)
But more than anything else, Nielsen came to rage. That’s unmistakable on tracks like “Do You Believe Me?”, “Blood Red Lips”, and the nifty cover of “The In Crowd”. New drummer Daxx Nielsen locks with Tom Petersson’s bass for a convincingly effective rhythm section.
The hero of the piece has to be Robin Zander. I’ve seen the occasional YouTube video shot from phone cameras over the past couple of years, and those betrayed a singer whose voice had deteriorated significantly over the years. I went into this album fearing that what I heard was going to be severe concessions to vocal range abuse, rock and roll life, and plain ol’ age. And then he opens his mouth and calms all worries. Zander sounds on many of these tracks just as wonderfully reckless and unhinged as ever. Now, there are some ways this can be achieved in the studio and a band that employs a lot of vocal harmonies are uniquely positioned to take advantage of them. (Yeah, but what’s the album called??)
Here’s how it would work. In early days when the vocal chords are still young and pliable, the less-taxing lower register would underpin the higher register which would take the lead (sung from the gut) in the vocal mix. In later years in the studio, a singer could easily flip the dynamic, bringing the lower register forward, placing the higher parts behind it. Only now, those highs can be sung “from the head” and mixed higher than recorded. The blend is, essentially, the same and neatly hides the imperfections of time. The only reason I’m going into this detail is to say that I don’t think that’s what Zander is doing here. The howls on “Do You Believe Me?” are as distinct as they were in the Seventies, as they were in the Nineties. When he hits the highs on “No Direction Home” there’s no instances where I felt mix-fix was spackling together a rough performance. So put away your cellphones, kiddies, and stop your deceiving’.
I did say I had misgivings, didn’t I? The first is with the horrible album title. One easily imagines the young marketing department of Big Machine Records throwing out onomatopoeia with abandon, throwing out their versions of “Crazy Sexy Cool” like it was 1994 all over again. From the back of the room one veteran says, “Cheap Trick’s first two albums had the tracks ‘ELO Kiddies’ and ‘Hello There’. Pin ‘hello’ to the word salad you guys mix up and we’ll call it lunch.” An album title does not an album make, but my cynical side sees a level of marketing gerrymandering that this record simply doesn’t need.
That’s a superfluous qualm. More to the point, founding partner and drummer Bun E. Carlos has been reduced to a silent partner in the organization, or so I’ve been led to believe by the news. There were a lot of issues within the group for many years. Articles surfaced that Carlos wanted to write new music and did not want to be stuck in the endless loop of oldies tours. He said he would drum on record but chose not to tour, provided those records weren’t re-records of old tracks or cover songs. There’s likely more to it than that, and no one outside of the Cheap Trick organization could know the full truth or extent. Still, it would have been a lot easier to balance this album if it had been a mess. Being as good a release as it is, Bang Zoom Crazy…Hello — crap title notwithstanding — should be an unqualified victory lap. There’s a bitter taste, now that Bun’s not a direct member anymore and now we get new material that has such a kick.
On the plus side, he is still connected to the Cheap Trick entity and if the band does well, he should receive some cut of the reward. This album, on the strict merit of the music within, deserves the attention.