CHEAP TRICK: ROCKFORD (2006)
1) Welcome To The World; 2) Perfect Stranger; 3) If It Takes A Lifetime; 4) Come On Come On Come On; 5) O Claire; 6) This Time You Got It; 7) Give It Away; 8) One More; 9) Every Night And Every Day; 10) Dream The Night Away; 11) All Those Years; 12) Decaf.
Finally, Cheap Trick score one with critics and veteran fans alike. Returning to their home base to write and produce their next album, they simply decided to cut the crap and give the people what they want — an «authentic», no-frills, classic-style power-pop Cheap Trick album, all balls and energy and catchy anthemic choruses and raw distorted guitars and even an album cover that pictures all four band members just the way they are supposed to be, smartly disguised through a cartoon perspective that successfully hides their age from inquisitive minds.
Everybody fell for this: where critical reception for Special One was lukewarm at best, Rockford was hailed as a true return to form — and it does not take long to see why, because upon first listen, it really sounds like the good old Trick has returned, and that long, strange, embarrassing trip they'd been on since 1980 is finally over. The album truly bursts with energy, as most of the songs are taken at moderately fast tempos, and all four band members, despite any potential age issues, sound just as youthful and enthusiastic as if it were 1977 all over again. The production is excellent — just the right balance of sound between guitars and vocals, and Bun E. Carlos' mule-kicking drumming is completely free of any distracting post-production effects (granted, neither did we have any problems with the production on Special One). And, like most veterans, they have that elusive «authenticity bonus» — unlike the youngsters of today, they can allow themselves the luxury of keeping it simple, idealistic, and Beatle-copping, and feeling all happy and glowing about it rather than embarrassed.
And yet, as much as I actually enjoy listening to these twelve songs (and I do, really), I would have to insist that, in terms of the general curve, Rockford is a serious slide down in substance, if not superficial quality, after the modest comeback of Cheap Trick '97 and even Special One. The reason is simple: neither of those two records felt like a conscious effort to go back to being the Cheap Trick of '77. What they did was try to make things right by returning the music to those styles and values that justify Cheap Trick's existence — but the first one of those also made allowances for the band's age, sounding a bit more mature and introspective than usual, and the second one at least tried to branch out a bit, experimenting with moods and textures on ʽPop Droneʼ, ʽSorry Boyʼ, ʽBest Friendʼ, and yes, even the ʽLow Lifeʼ joke.
More precisely, Rockford suffers from two pervasive (and somewhat connected) problems. First, the music is downright lazy. We may enjoy the kick-ass energy all we want, but is there even a single classy, original guitar riff from Nielsen? 90% of the time he is relying on simplistic guitar patterns, each and every one of which has probably already been used up dozens of times by power-pop and punk-pop bands around the world. I think that the only guitar melody on the entire album that got my ears perked up was the funny funky weave on ʽOne Moreʼ, which reminded me a little bit of the various ways these guys used to fool around in the past (especially on tracks like ʽGonna Raise Hellʼ). Everything else had a cool sound, but lacked memorability.
Second, there's just too much emphasis on the «having a good time» vibe. Classic Cheap Trick could turn into wild (but benevolent) party animals and rock'n'roll shamans at a moment's notice, but they also had that adventurous, cynical, dangerous side to them — the edgy side that produced such classics as ʽBallad Of TV Violenceʼ, ʽHeaven Tonightʼ, ʽYou're All Talkʼ, ʽGonna Raise Hellʼ, etc. The Cheap Trick of Rockford, in comparison, is a big, burly, friendly beast that can smother you in a well-meaning hug, but is incapable of trampling you under its hooves. The above-mentioned ʽOne Moreʼ is the only thing on the album that spices it up with a little aggressive negativity, but even that one is disappointing — first it cons you into thinking that Zander is going to throw one of his classic tempers, impersonating a "gonna raise hell" type of a guy, but then it merely turns into a timid variation on the subject of ʽI Can't Get No Satisfactionʼ (subject-wise, not musical). Everything else, song after song after song, is imbued with the optimistic spirit — which would be fine if the songs were at least easily distinguishable from each other in terms of melody, but no. Half of these tunes begin and I'm all like, "Wait, you just sang about that in your previous number, do you think I was dumb enough to not get it the first time?"
It does not help life much that there are numerous intentional self-references here, along with unintentional rip-offs of their own and others' musical moves. ʽWelcome To The Worldʼ was described by Nielsen as an update of the message and structure of ʽHello Thereʼ (except that it replaces the funny irony of ʽHello Thereʼ with a much more straightforward and optimistic greeting), but it also cops a part of the ʽDream Policeʼ solo. ʽCome On Come On Come Onʼ clearly references ʽCome On Come Onʼ (now you will spend the rest of your life trying not to confuse the two), but its chorus lacks the call-and-response excitement and aching yearning of the classic oldie. ʽO Claireʼ is a Lennon-style ballad with some delicious falsettos in the chorus, and it has nothing to do with the self-mocking ʽOh Claireʼ joke of Heaven Tonight, but, naturally, the title was intended to look as if they'd finally gotten around to turn that one into a real song. (And now they've also loaded you with the responsibility of remembering the difference between ʽOh Claireʼ and ʽO Claireʼ — they could have at least come up with another C-name).
Speaking of titles in general, they are really running out of imagination: anybody who has four songs in a row titled ʽGive It Awayʼ, ʽOne More Dayʼ, ʽEvery Night And Every Dayʼ, ʽDream The Night Awayʼ should probably be forced to memorize Ulysses in its entirety as adequate punishment. And they hunt for Beatles-related inspiration so avidly that eventually they do not even notice themselves that they begin sounding like Jeff Lynne's ELO instead — the "lonely lonely lonely lonely night" bit on ʽAll Those Yearsʼ, for instance. (For that matter, the "it could happen to you, it could happen to you" bit on ʽDecafʼ is exactly the same as it is on Paul McCartney's ʽTo Youʼ from Back To The Egg, but let's chalk this one up to coincidence).
Cutting a long story short, Rockford is superficially enjoyable — you can headbang to it, you can sing along to it, you can even try to forget how derivative and forced it is if you are a big, big fan of the band — and despite all the harsh criticism, I still give it a thumbs up because relatively well done nostalgia for a great past is still better than a poorly done, embarrassing attempt at harnessing a progressive future. But this is precisely what it is: an age-defying attempt to bring back a 1977, polished and updated for a 2006. I will never be the biggest fan of that, and would not advise anybody to frantically search for a justification of why Rockford is «simply a little different» from In Color. It is different, and not in a satisfactory manner.