Friday, June 19, 2009

Cheap Trick - All Shook Up (1980)

One further addendum to my maybe-too-in-depth outline of how I rate albums is that there won't be too much rhyme or reason to my selection of who/what I rate. (Case in point: this review.) Additionally, songs that are "just a little too short" have been bumped up to being 9's as opposed to 8's, though songs I feel are overly long are 8's or - if it's really bad - worse. I say this because feeling a song is too short means you like it enough to hear more of it. Just the opposite can be said for a song wearing out its proverbial welcome.

Beatles producer George Martin teamed up with Cheap Trick to make this record. Cheap Trick's early career, from their second album In Color And In Black And White (1977) onwards, is almost like following a path, starting with a-little-too-slick power pop on In Color (1977), evolving into power pop with balls (not to mention the greatest-sounding synthesizer of the 1970's) on Heaven Tonight (1978), and ending with ballsy power pop with an at times experimental bent on Dream Police (1979). All Shook Up would be a step further into a less radio-ready sound, and who better to helm it than the granddaddy of envelop-pushing within the mainstream? (Well, Todd Rundgren, but that's later... No, seriously, Todd would produce a Trick album in 1983.)

So the resulting album is the Sgt. Pepper of the era of arena rock, setting a new precedent for how albums are conceived, structured, and recorded yet again...right? to put's a letdown, if those are the expectations one has in mind. Any anticipated comparison to The Beatles is a guaranteed ticket to disappointment. That said, since the Fab Four split in 1970, Martin continued to produce albums and compose. He produced The Mahavishnu Orchestra's first foray into the incorporation of symphonic textures on Apocalypse (1974), Jeff Beck's groundbreaking Blow By Blow (1975), and his 1976 follow-up Wired (1976), all well-received and greatly praised albums. At the same time, Martin produced a string of albums for America (the band - not the nation) with middling to poor critical reception. 

(I'm not an America fan, but I'll wager that no matter how good or bad the songs are, the albums sound good from a sonic perspective.)

Thankfully, the album's shortcomings - few in number - are no fault of Mr. Martin's. Some of the songs just aren't as good.

But enough about the flaws - on its own, All Shook Up is a great album. "Stop This Game," "World's Greatest Lover," and "Go For The Throat (Use Your Own Imagination)" all incorporate symphonic elements. In the case of "Stop This Game," the orchestra plays where a synth line may have been on one of the previous two records. It works quite well, providing an edge not unlike an artist using a new color for the first time. The new sound(s) keep(s) the music fresh.

 "World's Greatest Lover" is enhanced by a string arrangement; being a ballad, the idea of string arrangements can trigger the "syrupy sweet" red alert, but not in the hands of George Martin. Keep in mind this is the man who brought us "Yesterday," "Eleanor Rigby," and "Hey Jude," all top-rate pop songs with classical arrangements. "Go For The Throat" uses a glockenspiel in certain sections, subtly generating a sense of tension. It succeeds in its aims.

When the band is hammering out good old rock songs, they sound terrific. "Just Got Back" opens with a blasting drum cadence, interrupting the "A Day In The Life" sustained piano note at the end of "Stop This Game" to great effect. Martin takes what makes Cheap Trick such a bitchin' band - Robin Zander's seemingly infinite vocal range, Rick Nielsen's electric filigrees on guitar, Tom Petersson's unique 12-string bass sound, and Bun E. Carlos' powerhouse drumming - and amps it up. Even on the songs where it's a little overproduced and the extra layers of guitars seem to add nothing crucial to the song, they still sound like they're having a blast. The Beatles employed their share of overdubs and it sounded great.

It's an interesting, and enjoyable, venture for the band musically. But is it a step in a new direction, or a fun distraction? For me, it's the latter. I think it sounds good, but production-wise (whether they asked for it or it just came with Martin manning the console) it strives too much for the Beatlesque. How you feel about it is your own call - I personally feel it's like seeing Rick Nielsen trade in his ball-cap, bow tie, and cardigan for a day-glo marching band uniform.

(Don't agree? Leave a comment!)

01. Stop This Game [9]
Well-orchestrated, the band turns in a tight performance, too. Its placement on the album is questionable. Perhaps it's the 27-second fade-in before the singing starts...or the fact that the fade-in is parallel to the ending of Pepper: a sustained piano note. The melody is quite good, and the chorus is good, even if you can't whistle it. Great song? Yes. Great kick-off track? Not quite...maybe for side B. It just doesn't have the drive of other album-starters like "Hello There," "Surrender," and "Dream Police." Hell, their debut record had two opening tracks: it had side A and side one - clever, yes? - to keep listeners from thinking one half of the whole is inferior. Both songs, "ELO Kiddies" and "Hot Love," are great album openers.

02. Just Got Back [9]
As if to deflate any aura of pomposity from the orchestrations and Beatle nods on the opening cut - hey, maybe "Stop This Game" was the start-off for a reason! - the decay of the piano is cut off by a battery of drums, with a song that would have been hands down (for me) the best choice for an album opener. (Wait, maybe there's a lesson in this about suspending our expectations - further proof that Cheap Trick is a more cerebral band than the mullet-rock trash they constantly get lumped in with like Journey, REO Speedwagon, and Styx.) In fact, this song has opened their live shows before, in place of "Hello There." My only gripe? Too short.

03. Baby Loves To Rock [9]
A solid rocker, its verses anchored on a nod to The Yardbirds' 1966 b-side "Psycho Daisies." Beyond the fact that The Yardbirds had been relegated to "THIS IS THE BAND THAT HAD ERIC CLAPTON, JEFF BECK, AND JIMMY PAGE" and "THIS IS THE BAND THAT BECAME LED ZEPPELIN"-stickered compilation LP's - thus making the musical nod a hip one - the chorus and bridge are good enough to make this more than just a copy. During the bridge, put on some headphones and listen for the sound effects accompanying each line - "Not in Russia!" is paired with an aircraft "Back In The USSR" being about a plane flight. (This is a Beatle reference I can dig!) Also got to love Robin's inability to say "sex" in that second verse, turning teen sexual angst/frustration into a memorable stutter.

04. Can't Stop It But I'm Gonna Try [10]
A great power-pop song...but not like they'd done before. It had a 
catchy intro riff, but the verse makes a shift in tempo that one 
doesn't normally hear in a pop song. Robin's vocals on the second 
half of the verses sound like they were delivered with a sneer, 
while the chorus - based on the intro riff - makes this the catchiest 
song on the album so far. Great break-up song, this one.

05. World's Greatest Lover [11]
All those things I said about Cheap Trick trying maybe a little 
too hard to get outside themselves and sound like The Beatles? 
That doesn't apply to this song. Even without the strings, this song 
stands on its own, lyrically and melodically. It feels like one of 
those Beatle tunes where Paul wrote most of it, with John doing 
the bridge, and a great guitar solo to end it with the delicate but
melodic touch from George. It even plods along on the piano like 
solo Lennon ("Imagine") or McCartney ("Maybe I'm Amazed"). 
Beautiful ballad, and a perfect example of Rick Nielsen's ability to 
play excellent solos and Robin's amazing chops as a singer.

06. High Priest Of Rhythmic Noise [10]
Were it not for "World's Greatest Lover" being such a show-
stopper, this would be my favorite cut on the album. Kicking off side 
B of the record with sheer madness, this isn't the Cheap Trick 
you heard on the radio. No, this is "Surrender" on speed...with a 
robot on guest vocals (actually Rick talking through a vocoder). 
The song modulates between Rick's synthesized speech, Robin's 
sung half of the verse, and the rocking chorus. There's also some 
truly demented piano work going on in the background - a 
contrast to the patterned, layered string synths of albums past. Bottom 
line on this song: wow...these guys have a weird side...and I like 

07. Love Comes A-Tumblin' Down [5]
...but then they take a shit in your hand with this Led Zeppelin-
meets-AC/DC crapfest. What the Hell are all these lyrics but a 
series of song titles, from "Long Tall Sally" to "Highway To Hell" 
and "Johnny B. Goode?" This is one instance where Robin's 
ability to sing up higher than most of us males works against him, as 
his attempts to sound like Robert Plant and Bon Scott (singers I 
already find grating) are somehow worse than either of them. The 
song's redeeming quality is the sheer absurdism in the break, 
where some dialog delivered by a basso British man (could it be "Big" 
George himself?) 
"I'm wishing to live longer aided by the supreme healing force of music. It most definitely overcomes all weakening aspects of the body. I've felt quite lost and distraught without those wonderful vinyl productions. I'm convinced it's an addiction, too. I feel just great again - thanks, Geoffrey!"
It's buried a little in the mix, throwing the song just enough off-kilter to not sound like the standard brainless fare on which this song is modeled.

08. I Love You Honey But I Hate Your Friends [4.5]
Artistically, I'd say this is just as annoying as "Love Comes A-Tumblin' Down," but the extra .5 is deducted for having such a dumb title - not even parenthesis could have saved this one - and consequently lyrics about as bright as the artist they're mimicking, this time latter-day Rolling Stones (bearing in mind this is 1980, with The Rolling Stones having under half of their existence - but two-thirds of their studio discography - behind them.) Unfortunately, it's not good latter-day Rolling Stones. It's side B doldrums Rolling Stones...[I'm tempted to insert a crack here about how maybe it's artistic statement about side B of an LP, but I won't.] It's repetitive and annoying. Funny enough, just like The Rolling Stones, it's pretty damn hard to figure out what is being sung. You're not missing much. The redeeming quality of this song is the bizarre piano interlude heralded by Robin's proclamation "Let's dance!"

09. Go For The Throat (Use Your Own Imagination) [10]
The side B doldrums that befell All Shook Up is saved by this song. As an angry counterpoint to the sadness on "Can't Stop It But I'm Gonna Try," "Go For The Throat" has Bun E. Carlos channeling Keith Moon on his drum runs during the chorus, with some Beefheartian syncopated-but-patterned playing on the chorus. The electric piano is a welcome addition, and Tom's bass has never sounded nastier or meaner than it does here. When the bridge comes and the band locks into a solid rock groove there is a feeling of reprieve from the rest of the song - this statement meant in a loving, complimentary way.

10. Who D'King [7.5]
I love Bun E. Carlos. I think he's terrific, and his drumming style possesses a certain character and finesse that influenced my own playing - tempered, not taking up as much sonic space as a Mitch Mitchell or any of those quadruplet-worshipping modern drummers - but when he has songwriting credit on a song, my own filler warning light comes on. It's a bunch of syncopated drum beats, interlocking and sounding almost tribal, stopping only for a chant of "Who d' king of d' whole wide world?" The latter repeat of "Whooooo da? Whoooo da? Who-da, who-da? Who-da, who-da?", first of all, sounds a LOT better than it reads, and second - if one didn't bother to make out the sparse lyrics - wouldn't be out of place hidden amongst a stack of ethnomusicological tapes. While this song smacks of being inconsequential, it's actually pretty cool, saved by the subtle humor ("We be d'king of the d' whole wide world!") and willingness to experiment beyond the milieu of Western music as we know it.

Subtotal: 85

Replayability Factor: +2 
I couldn't just sit and listen to this one all the time - at least not while Dream Police is within arm's reach - but it isn't too much of any one emotion or sentiment to put me off from only listening to it while "in a certain mood." 

Consistency Factor: +1
This album suffers from being in the shadow of four mammoth studio albums and one powerhouse of a live album - little brother syndrome - but it unfortunately fulfills that role. Dream Police truly was a peak; just because it's a step down doesn't mean it's an awful album, but if you had never heard Cheap Trick before I wouldn't tell you to run out and buy this one first. Maybe fifth or sixth, after the first five albums. 

External Factors: +1
As a drawback, the album is overproduced at times. On the plus side, this stands out as the most experimental record Cheap Trick did. So it doesn't make it the best, but one must respect the risk(s) taken. It's unique in a good way.



PS - sorry the format's screwed up here, visually. I tried fixing it, but it got worse.

New? Check out my entry on how I rate my records!

1 comment:

blah said...

I've been struggling to get closer to this album. Lucky for me, I've really only recently begun exploring Cheap Trick, and it's been a great trip… so glad I saved them for so many years so that I can appreciate them now. Your "review" was refreshingly free of so-called "clever" criticisms, and relied instead on honest reflection… kudos! My personal problem with the album wasn't my expectations (though how could a Beatle-freak who loves Cheap Trick NOT have expectations), no my problem with the album is simply the abundance of period influence. I would like to have seen good ol' Cheap Trick pair with Martin… to my ears, this isn't that. Check out "The Latest," it's really everything this album should have been.