I'll be reviewing a few albums over the next few weeks that I never expected to see. This is one of them because I'd assumed Cheap Trick had ceased to be years ago, not through a split or any sort of musical differences but through retirement. They're close to the epitome of the band who show up in rotation on classic rock radio stations and you think to yourself, "I wonder whatever happened to them" as you can't name a single song by them that wasn't recorded well over thirty years ago.
Well, it seems that Cheap Trick have never gone away, maintaining a consistent line-up for almost half a century. Sure, lead vocalist Robin Zander didn't actually show up until 1974, making him the new fish in the same way that Dave Gilmour is the new fish in Pink Floyd. Rick Nielsen and Bun E. Carlos were in place from from moment one in 1973, playing lead guitar and drums respectively, and they never left. Tom Petersson was also the founding bassist, but he did take a break in 1980, so causing the only line-up changes outside Zander replacing Randy Hogan at the mike when I was three.
Now, I should add that while Carlos is still the band's official drummer, that's only for legal reasons, as he's retired and he's the official drummer in the same way that James Patterson is the official author of all those books he farms out to others to write nowadays. Daxx Nielsen, son of Rick, is effectively their drummer and it's him playing drums here, whatever the legal paperwork says.
Wikipedia tells me that they've been recording a lot of albums too. I don't think I've heard anything of theirs since Lap of Luxury in 1988, which was their tenth studio release and their most successful after Dream Police in 1979. However, this is their twentieth, even though it's not particularly likely that I'd want to venture anywhere near it's predecessor, Christmas Christmas, which is exactly what you think it is. Yes, it's Cheap Trick covering all the rock Christmas classics, from Slade and Wizzard to the Kinks and the Ramones and, er, a Saturday Night Live skit co-written by Jimmy Fallon.
The good news is that this doesn't come anywhere near to how bad I expect that album to sound like. The bad news is that this doesn't live up to its beginning. I might disagree with them singing The Summer Looks Good on You because I'm a pasty Englishman living in the boiler room of Hell (Phoenix, AZ), but I like the song. It's a classic Cheap Trick song in that it's bubbly and vibrant and is never far away from a fresh hook but it keeps enough bite in the guitar for it to feel as much like an edgy rocker as the soft pop song it is under that leather jacket.
From there, however, it gets poppier and poppier. Quit Waking Me Up sounds good but it also sounds like it could be the backing for a cereal commercial. You just know that everyone involved in making it wore a big American smile as they did so. Boys & Girls & Rock n Roll is what the Faces would have been if they ditched all the debauchery and wrote theme songs for sitcoms instead. So It Goes starts out like a Harry Nilsson song and gradually morphs into a Beatles cover of a Harry Nilsson song. I don't think I can describe I'll See You Again better than as a lullabye.
And, while I can't write the album off for doing all that, because it's slick and pretty and commercial, I can't necessarily recommend it to Cheap Trick fans who want to rock out as much as they want to hear catchy hooks. Listen to the recent Jason Bieler album instead; he's mastered that Cheap Trick, er, trick of making singalong songs that still kick ass. However, there are moments.
Final Days boasts a decent riff, almost something Ritchie Blackmore might have written when he was in Deep Purple, and the song broods along nicely. Here's Looking at You is a little soft but it still does everything that we expect any Cheap Trick song to do. And Light Up the Fire is exactly what I want in a Cheap Trick album released in 2021. It's catchy as hell but it's also a guitar song, not just when the solo shows up but inherently throughout. It's the third single and I'm wondering if it should have been the first.
In other words, while this isn't close to being their best work and it would look uncomfortable next to Dream Police or At Budokan, it's not that bad an album. There are some real highlights and even the softer material isn't awful. It turns out that Cheap Trick aren't that bad at being the Beatles, or even, on Another World (Reprise), a rebellious David Bowie. I enjoyed it, though I doubt I'll ever come back to it again and, perhaps more importantly, I doubt it'll prompt me to check out any of the other eight non-Christmas albums they've released since I heard them last.