Cheap Trick: "The Latest"

July 7, 2009


Still one of the hardest working bands in show business when it comes to relentless gigging 35 years into their storied career, Rockford's own Cheap Trick haven't garnered as much attention for recent recordings, though they've been reconnecting with their muse in the studio of late after the relatively disappointing output of the '90s.

In between the recent 30th anniversary celebration of their breakthrough album, "Live at Budokan," and their upcoming gig playing all of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in Las Vegas in September, the prime purveyors of Midwestern power-pop recorded a new and at times very Beatlesesque set of new material, which also includes an inspired cover of Slade's glam-rock era anthem, "When the Lights Are Out."

Unlike so many of their peers, the members of Cheap Trick have lost none of their powers: Robin Zander remains a powerhouse vocalist at age 56, Rick Nielsen continues to wield one of the most distinctive if underrated guitars in rock and the rhythm section of Tom Petersson and Bun E. Carlos are still a force of nature. It's a joy to hear them tear through flat-out rockers such as "California Girl," "Sick Man of Europe" and "Alive," as well as more orchestrated (though never bombastic) power ballads such as "Miss Tomorrow" and "These Days." None of these songs are likely to win the band new fans, but they deserve to.

Maxwell: "BLACKsummers'night"

Many of the leading lights in the so-called "neo-soul" or "natural R&B" movement of the mid-'90s seemed to suffer from mid-career crises, withdrawing from the spotlight in the new millennium. Sade, Lauryn Hill, D'Angelo--all have been M.I.A. for the last decade or so, and the same was true of Brooklyn-born singer Maxwell, who has not released a new album since his third studio disc, "Now," in 2001.

Maxwell reportedly spent his lost years living as a "regular person"--"People tend to be so hell-bent on remaining famous that you become desensitized to the music industry to some level," he told Billboard--as well as falling in and out of love. The progressive emotions of that relationship--longing, devotion and finally regret--fuel much of "BLACKsummers'night," the first installment of what he says will be a trilogy. Yet if he still represents a welcome and more enlightened alternative to the bump 'n' grind cliches of too much modern hip-hop, overall, Maxwell's return is a sleepy affair.

Though they are gorgeously recorded, tastefully arranged and beautifully played in the old-school way by flesh-and-blood musicians eschewing digital tomfoolery, only a handful of the songs written with guitarist Hod David leave a lasting impact, chief among them the first single "Pretty Wings" and the anthemic "Help Somebody." Too much of the rest of the disc--the largely acoustic "Playing Possum," the opening atmospheric ballad "Bad Habits," the mildly funky slow jam "Stop the World"--never rise above the level of pleasant background music.