Cheap Trick Special One (Big3)

Marshall Crenshaw What's in the Bag? (Razor & Tie)

Where do aging pop-rockers with little cultural currency and a hankering for actual currency go when the major-label system fails them but selling CDs without the help of brick and mortar is still kind of complicated and stuff? They flock to them there indies, of course, where young acts with big-league aspirations establish histories and big-league veterans with no histories establish presents (if not presence).

Cheap Trick actually takes advantage of its low-pressure environment by throwing whatever they can think of into Special One, the Illinois band's first studio album since 1997's self-titled disc. Mostly that means cheap tricks, not to mention ones that betray their collective years: ersatz trip-hop ambiance in the title track; a poppy, droning one called "Pop Drone"; a pointless remix of "Low Life in High Heels" by Dan the Automator; gratuitous Pete Townshend power chords in opener "Scent of a Woman" that primarily conjure their generation's fondness for Toyota spots. But even if they're out of touch -- certainly not a crime, and occasionally a boon to creation -- they don't sound particularly excited about anything; even a Steve Albini-helmed "Sorry Boy" fails to throw much heat, coming off more like an exurban version of Judas Priest's "You've Got Another Thing Comin'" than sassy don't-call-it-a-comeback.

In contrast, Marshall Crenshaw, never as convincing a rocker as Rick Nielsen nor as pretty a man as Robin Zander, hews closer to the Aimee Mann/Elvis Costello theory of growing old gracefully on his new What's in the Bag?, filling his slow, sturdy ballads about, well, growing old gracefully with tasteful vibes and string instruments, and allowing the grain in his voice to color the music like smoke. The result's no more rousing than Special One, but it's a hell of a lot more convincing: Crenshaw's version of Prince's "Take Me With U" locates the inevitable last-chance flip side to Prince's all-night ebullience. Surrender can sound pretty sweet.

 
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