There was a time, circa 1977-80, when Cheap Trick were sitting on top of the world. With its skewed Beatle-pop and calculated image, the Illinois quartet rose from obscurity to arena-rock status practically overnight. The beauty of Cheap Trick was that you could love them even if you didn’t get the joke. The group’s irony was grafted onto the sort of rock-solid hooks and harmonies only a dolt could ignore. You can still hear the influence of that pioneering sound on today’s up-and-coming arena-rock hopefuls (Urge Overkill, Enuff Z’Nuff!).
Trouble is, by the end of the ’80s, Cheap Trick had forgotten they were the Thinking Man’s Party Band and started to sound like their goal was to achieve parity with Warrant or Winger. It would be nice to report that Woke Up With a Monster is a return to form, but too much of it is simply well-crafted pop metal.
To be fair, Monster isn’t a total washout: “My Gang” and “Girlfriends” have some of the old flair, and “You’re All I Wanna Do” is as tidy a power-pop number as Cheap Trick have knocked off in a dog’s age. But the smell of compromise that has dogged the band since its massive 1988 MOR hit “The Flame” hangs over the rest, from freeze-dried ballads like “Never Run Out of Love” to bland funk moves like “Ride the Pony.” Most distressing is the paucity of humor, once a Cheap Trick hallmark. Are we really supposed to wring our hands over the title track’s melodramatic portrait of a marriage on the rocks? Monster leaves you wondering who stole the fun from Cheap Trick’s music.
The fun’s a-poppin’, though, on Freak City Soundtrack, the third album from that Illinois trio Material Issue. Filled with fat guitar sounds and fatter melodies, Freak is a feast of catchy songs that imprint themselves on your memory after one spin. Singer/songwriter and guitarist Jim Ellison yelps and croons lyrics about rooting through his girlfriend’s purse or developing a crush on a waitress like a post-adolescent gone girl crazy. Cheap Trick could relearn a thing or two from these guys. Ironically, Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick has given his Illinois homeboys his imprimatur and even contributes some smokin’ guitar to two tracks. What was that old bit about the child being father to the man?