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Reviewed by Michael Fortes
Nor has age dulled the wit of the Midwestern power pop legends, whose new album’s title appears to be a cruel joke on critics – it forces us to find creative ways to avoid saying the word "latest" more than once in the same sentence, the equivalent of Rick Nielsen tossing guitar picks into our drinks while our heads are turned.
Best of all, The Latest finds Cheap Trick sticking to what could be a schedule built for quality – one record every three years – since they broke their six-year drought of studio albums in 2003 with the half-baked but still decent Special One, and followed it in 2006 with the sturdy, solid Rockford.
Third time around sees the quality trend continue upward. The Latest frequently draws on both the dramatic string flourishes that marked ‘79’s Dream Police, as well as that record’s tendency for unforgettable choruses. This is precisely what makes the pop gem "Miss Tomorrow," the dramatic mid-tempo tune "Everybody Knows," and the turbo charged rocker "Alive" (as in "we’ll never get out of this place alive") some of the best Cheap Trick tunes since "Way of the World" and "I’ll Be With You Tonight." Or at least since the last album. Who are we kidding here, anyway?
The fun factor also remains in spite of age, and part of the fun of Cheap Trick albums is playing "spot the self-alluding reference." This tradition started way back on 1978’s Heaven Tonight, when Zander asked us if we still remembered "I Want You to Want Me" in that tune’s vaudevillian cousin, "How Are You?" It doesn’t happen on every album, but it definitely happens here, unmistakably so in the band’s brilliant cover of Slade’s "When the Lights Are Out." This is our lesson in creative cribbing – now we know where Bun E. Carlos found the beat for the first album’s thundering opener, "Elo Kiddies." And in case the point wasn’t made clearly enough, Nielsen drops a reminder in the solo.
Beyond another excuse for a gratuitous "in" reference (the title of the fuzzed out, punked up "Sick Man of Europe" was also the name of an early incarnation of the band), CT gets its Beatles on (again) in the aforementioned "Miracle," with "Penny Lane"-like horns and a nod to Lennon’s "Mind Games" in Nielsen’s riffing. "Closer" could be a Fab Four tribute as well, though it actually sounds more like Cheap Trick aping Oasis aping the Beatles, and as luck would have it, no other band could possibly pull off such a preposterous idea if they tried (odds are, they didn’t).
They probably also didn’t try to be so foolhardy as to close an album with three slow, ballad-like numbers in a row. There’s no reason why this should not completely de-nut The Latest. And yet, with the strength of the power pop nuggets earlier in the record, the apparent tie-in between album opener "Sleep Forever" and closer "Smile" (the former bids "sweet dreams in heaven," while to the singer’s "darling little ones" he advises in the latter: "don’t be afraid to cry"), and the fact that none of these songs suck, it’s clear that Nielsen wasn’t bullshitting when he recently claimed that Cheap Trick has grown up without growing old. The Latest bears this out, easily outshining the band’s past three decades’ worth of work – except Dream Police, of course.