Recordings

Cheap Trick
(Cheap Trick/Red Ant Entertainment)

Before we bog ourselves down in the bubble gum, let's get the disclaimer out of the way: The purpose of this essay isn't to compare Cheap Trick to John Coltrane, or Bob Dylan, or Elvis Costello, or any other so-called "critically important" musical acts. In fact, as we survey the history of 20th-century popular music, Cheap Trick shouldn't even register as a blip -- unless it's a footnote somewhere that points to them as a particularly tenacious example of an anti-important pop nuisance, the epitome of vapid.

This, of course, is what makes Cheap Trick rebels (notice here the use of the present tense). They've had no other desire than to wallow in the cliches of cliches of teen pain and desire. Crowd-pleasers primarily, they've never wanted to say anything more than "I want you to want me," in a catchy, big-hit kind of way. They've shamelessly flogged their dying collective horse, constructing sappy, overproduced, post-Beatles ballads and mostly uninspired, semidistorted rockers out of its last feeble whinnies. And then there's the shtick (the pretty boys vs. the goobers, the checkered 24-necked guitars), which, back in the late '70s, was often misinterpreted as "absurdist," and today as, well, "fresh." Yes, to love Cheap Trick is to prefer a lite beer over a microbrew, to pour fake maple on your toaster waffles. To love Cheap Trick is to embrace American mediocrity at its most refined -- to celebrate the "art" of the artless and the "hook" of an icebox-to-Eskimo sales job. And if you, dear reader, have borne this cross like I have, through so many years of I-told-you-sos and what-are-you-stupids, waiting for a sign of dead equine resurrection, take a seat, if you haven't already.

Exactly 20 years after the first Cheap Trick Cheap Trick, here it is, the heavily hyped, re-self-titled re-debut. Breathe easy. It's neither "critically important" nor Bryan Adams-abhorrent. Indeed, it's vintage Cheap Trick (as the ads tell us), and since their confection has always been a product more than a process, the complainers can just go ahead and leave the arena. And unlike Dream Police -- or any album thereafter -- the standout tracks are fairly plentiful (bearing in mind all the relativity): "Anytime," the opening cut, has that signature Bun E. Carlos snare-drum shuffle (as does the Meatloaf-esque "Wrong All Along"), then some melodic guitar-picking, then the distortion explosion as Zander melodically shreds his vocal chords in a way reminiscent of Kurt Cobain or Roger Daltry. (There's a chicken-or-egg question for you.) Or the sugary Beatles-John Lennon -- uh -- stylings on "Carnival Game," "Yeah, Yeah," and "You Let a Lot of People Down." Nice chord progressions, nice hooks; you've heard them all, but you haven't, really. You're smiling, and you're right. You've heard this entire album before, even if you haven't. You've been dreaming it, for better or worse, since the age of 12.

-- Curtis Bonney

Zhane
Saturday Night
(Motown)

Jean Norris and Renee Neufville, known collectively as Zhane, are unabashed fans of the radio; they make utterly mainstream music, but with their own distinctive stamp. On their first recording, 1994's Pronounced Jah-nay (the name is an imperfect amalgam of their first names), they scored minor hits with austere but rhythmically strident songs like "Hey Mr. DJ" and "Groove Thang." The songs' dark tones and savvy lyrics announced that the duo were fans of late-'70s and early '80s R&B. The production values were similar to Aretha's early Arista recordings, and the vibe hearkened back to the heady days of disco. They were deeply cognizant that in some communities partying meant cathartic affirmation more than escapist celebration. In other words, they really did believe in the boogie. And the boogie believed in them (the recording went platinum). They are smart (both are alumnae of Temple University) and they write solid, well-structured songs. If they can maintain this level of quality for a decade or so, they'll be a stateside, distaff, black version of the Pet Shop Boys.

Saturday Night skillfully expands their terrain a bit. Pardon the cliche, but they pick up where they left off in the first seconds of the new disc. The initial words to Neufville's "Request Line" are, "I know it's better when/ The rhythm works together/ With the beat in your soul." They spend the first half of the disc's 16 songs reinforcing their groove theories. The other half is devoted to ballads -- the serene late-night finish to the party. They've extended their spare approach to the quiet-storm side of R&B. Each song reflects an intense attention to detail and refuses to smother the listener with sentimentality. The tunes are sensual but not overtly bump-and-grind; Norris and Neufville are too smart and self-assured to be boy toys.

Most female R&B singers are assailed for sounding like their producers. That claim holds here, too; Norris and Neufville produce themselves. They've taken the risky strategy of locating their voice within the confines of mainstream black pop, and have for the most part succeeded (although some writers have ignorantly lumped them in with the Allures and Totals and otherwise interchangeable B-girl groups). On their second recording, they reinforce their position and start to move beyond it. Saturday Night is a small triumph. Although they sound like they have big victories inside of them, it's exactly what they were aiming for.

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