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Non-Prog CD Reviews

REO Speedwagon

Essential REO

Review by Gary Hill

The story is a familiar one - a band forms and creates their own sound, putting out a wealth of material, with some strong and others not so strong. Eventually they stumble onto a major hit, and suddenly their entire output seems to be based around trying to recreate that sound. Whether that response is from pressure from the record label or simply the thrill of bigger and bigger pay checks and the ever growing fan base, the end result is usually the same. Eventually the thrill of their sound being the flavor of the month wears off and the new found fans fall away, having moved onto the next new sound. By this time, though, they have alienated a lot of their original, more loyal fans by catering to the fickle pop market. The flame of their career, once a glowing pyre, flickers to a match light or fades away completely. Such is the story of REO Speedwagon.

The sad after effect of that familiar story is that often, and certainly in this case, the group lost a lot of credibility with both the more discerning music audience and the critics. If they stay together, it is an uphill battle to try to get even close to where they were before the first mega hit. In the case of REO we find a band that despite what many think or remember were really capable of producing quality rock music. One of their biggest assets was guitarist Gary Richrath who is one of the more tasteful and talented guitarists in the business. Truly much of their material (even during their mega-hit period) had a lot of heart and integrity. Now days, though, the band need to try to convince listeners to give them a chance again.

For fans of their mega hits and those who want to remember what the band was really about, this career spanning chronicle is a great time capsule. One might be surprised at just how strong some of this material still is. The weaker of the stuff here, though, comes both from their hit making period and the time since when they have seemingly been scrambling to find a new direction. Listening to a lot of this music, I for one hope they manage to do it. They really had a lot of talent, but just seemed to get lost. In the meantime, I'm happy to kick back and give this collection a listen.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2005 Year Book Volume 3 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Disc 1
Sophisticated Lady
This rocker has a bit of a bluesy texture and an old school rock and roll feel. This isn't bad, just not all that special.
Music Man
A fast paced rocker, this is a slightly naïve sounding, but competent piece.
Golden Country
This proggy hard rocking number has always been a personal favorite. This comes across a bit like Deep Purple, Vanilla Fudge and Head East. It's interesting that all these years later the problems that the song talks about are still un-solved. This one with its alternating harder and mellower segments is purely awesome. It includes some oh, so tasty guitar work.
Son of A Poor Man
Starting with a fast paced hard-edged sound, this drops to a more basic rocker. It's not anything spectacular.
Lost In A Dream
This bouncy rocker is soulful and quite tasty with its early '70's sensibilities. The guitar work here is again very meaty and the bass line is equally awesome. This moves into a proggy jam that is pretty spectacular. This is very dynamic and a hidden gem.
Keep Pushin'
A '70's radio favorite, this positive rocker is catchy, solid and still holds up well.
(I Believe) Our Time Is Gonna Come
REO comes across as almost metal on the intro to this cut. The verse is a bouncy mellow rocker. This is another less well-known, but very strong cut with a killer arrangement and strong vocal and guitar performances. The break on this actually feels a bit like Alan Parsons and includes some great instrumental work.
Lightning
This is another overlooked classic rocker that is quite dramatic and very strong.
Like You Do
This live rocker is essentially a straight-ahead rocker. This one's not bad, and does include some nice passages and tasty guitar work. It's just not all that special.
Flying Turkey Trot
Another live one, this instrumental is pretty funky. It's also a fairly dynamic cut working through quite a few changes.
157 Riverside Avenue
A bluesy piano solo starts this one. After the intro the cut becomes a honky tonk rock and roller. This is a fun one, and the showcase, a call and response from Richrath on guitar and Cronin on vocals is stellar, as is much of the piano work. This jam is a classic. Everyone in the band gets to show off on this one - it even has a bass solo.
Ridin' the Storm Out
This classic hard rock masterpiece has always been stronger in this live rendition than the original studio take, so it's good they included this version here. It is another that includes top-notch keyboard work.
Roll With the Changes
The first cut from the super popular era of the band, this was a break through track for them. It's a strong pop rock hit, and well deserving of the success it had. It truly represents the fruition of the REO sound to this point.
Time For Me To Fly
A balladic hit from the band, this is a pretty and potent rocker. Again, it's not a stretch from some of what the band was doing until then, just more polished.
Say You Love Me Or Say Goodnight
This is a fast paced rocker with some of that boogie woogie feel the band had pulled off well before. It's a good, but not great cut.
Disc 2
Back on the Road Again
Starting with a fast paced drone, this is a good hard edged rocker with a surprising amount of crunch. This has always been an under-appreciated gem in my book.
Only the Strong Survive
A more pop-oriented cut, this one actually feels a bit like early Cars in its bouncy texture.
Don't Let Him Go
This is another REO pop rock hit that just isn't all that special.
Keep On Loving You
Somewhat cliched and bordering on sappy, this balladic pop cut works well despite those things.
In Your Letter
Based on a '50's pop style, this one is a bit weak in the opinion of this reviewer.
Take It On The Run
Although a pretty routine REO hit, this one works quite well nonetheless. It includes a very meaty guitar solo.
Keep the Fire Burnin'
This is another that is a fairly generic cut that falls clearly into that pop rock format that became almost a cliché of the band eventually.
Key
Continuing the trend, this is another pretty standard pop rocker for the group.
One Lonely Night
This ballad rocker doesn't wander far from the format of a lot of REO's pop era, but despite that this one works especially well. It features a smoking guitar solo.
Live Every Moment
This one is a bit too lackluster and generic.
Can't Fight This Feeling
A piano based ballad, this hit single, despite its somewhat cheesy AOR format is fairly satisfying.
That Ain't Love
This is a fast paced rocker that feels at its start rather like The Who's "Pinball Wizard". Still pretty generic, this one has some meat to it nonetheless.
In My Dreams
This ballad is not so generic as it is simply banal. It's arguably the weakest cut the band ever did.
Variety Tonight
With its decidedly '80's stylings the only real tip to the REO legacy here is Cronin's voice. Still this is a moderately strong track.
Here With Me
This ballad is another that doesn't have much of the classic REO texture. It is definitely a weak one, but does include some tasteful guitar work.
Love Is A Rock
A modernization of the REO sound, this one feels too contrived and falls rather flat.
Building The Bridge
While not feeling much like REO, this ballad is an intriguing and fairly strong one. Gospel type backing vocals are a bit over the top, but the positive lyrical message and meaty guitar work do much to counter this.
Just For You
While another generic styled ballad, this one has enough heart to be quite effective.
 
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