After a decade-long slump that culminated in 1994's widely ignored Woke Up With A Monster, Cheap Trick began to look to its own past for the inspiration that was lacking on albums like Busted, The Doctor, and Lap of Luxury. On the heels of 1996's well-received box set, a well-liked self-titled 1997 album, and this year's Live At Budokan: The Complete Concert, Epic/Legacy has re-released the group's classic first three albums, along with bonus tracks and new liner notes by Chicago music critic Greg Kot. The band's debut, 1977's Cheap Trick, is a raw, abrasive album unlike anything it has released since. A commercial disappointment at the time, the record finds the band bashing out intense, morbidly funny songs that fall somewhere between the pummeling assault of heavy metal and the snide melodicism of New Wave. Cheap Trick has always been a working band, and before the release of its album, the group played over 250 shows a year, developing a ferocious tightness perfectly captured by Jack Douglas' minimalist production. The re-release of Cheap Trick also restores the album's original intended running order, which had been altered by a printer's error over 20 years ago. In the same year, Cheap Trick put out its indisputable masterpiece, In Color, an album that found the band channeling its aggression into amazing three-minute power-pop anthems. With the exception of the forgettable "You're All Talk," every song is single-worthy, and the album's best tracks—"I Want You To Want Me," "Come On, Come On," "Downed," and "Southern Girls"—feature the sort of hooks that the Matchbox 20s of the world would sell their souls to emulate. The sort of unpretentious masterpiece that could only come from a band discovered in a Wisconsin bowling alley, In Color is Midwestern power-pop at its finest. Like its predecessor, In Color was a commercial disappointment, and 1978's Heaven Tonight found Cheap Trick a bit desperate to achieve the sort of breakthrough success that had eluded it. Unfortunately, apart from "Surrender," the album's brilliant first single, nothing quite measures up to the absurdly high standard the band had set for itself. In its bid for mainstream success, the overproduced Heaven Tonight fails to preserve the small-town vibe that made In Color so endearing. Most of the bonus tracks on the three discs are taken from the box set, with a few notable exceptions, including an entertainingly deranged demo of "Surrender" featuring a lyric deemed too risqué and changed before the song made it to the album. In his liner notes, Kot somewhat euphemistically refers to the offending line—"I have heard the WACs recruited old maids, dykes, and whores"—as offering a critique of the unfair stereotyping of female personnel during World War II. Of course, it takes nothing away from "Surrender" to say that chief Cheap Trick songwriter Rick Nielsen probably cared less about the political implications of the band's work than creating enduring music. Which is exactly what Cheap Trick did with these great albums.

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