Graded on a Curve:
REO Speedwagon,
You can Tune a piano,
but you can’t Tuna fish.

I love this album, you most likely loathe this album, and you know what? I don’t give a shit! Feel free to mock this 1978 classic for its stupid title and awful cover, and even to hold your nose at the music contained within said cover, but be aware that proud know-nothings such as yours truly simply laugh at such criticism before drowning it out with the totally brilliant opening track, “Roll with the Changes.”

I’ll be the first to admit You can Tune a piano… isn’t the perfect album. The perfect REO album would include such earlier gems as “Ridin’ the Storm Out,” “Keep Pushin’,” “Anti Establishment Man,” and–it goes without saying–”Prison Women,” which includes such immortal poesy as “Like tears to a mouse, a biting to a clam” and “Life from limping eyes, yeah.” And how could I have forgotten “Light Up,” which is actually a Styx song but who’s counting?

You can Tune a piano… was the Champlain, Illinois band’s seventh LP in as many years, and it was the one that answered the question, “If this bunch of journeymen hacks really insists upon sucking, why can’t they at least sell a few records while they’re at it?” The critics hated ‘em; hell, even the rare plaudits they did receive were back-handed ones at best. “Pioneers of AOR schlock-rock schlock-pop,” Village Voice scribe Robert Christgau called them, and I think he meant it as a compliment.

But populist types like this guy knew better. Sure, their albums were uneven–a fate shared by You can Tune a piano… –but they all showed glimmers of originality; say what you will about the hard-charging “Roll with the Changes,” it’s anything but your hard rock same old same old. On it Gary Richrath lets loose on guitar, Neil Doughty struts his stuff on Hammond organ, and vocalist Kevin Cronin almost doesn’t sound like a pussy, and it evokes images of the band as entertainers on a 19th Mississippi riverboat, say the one in Herman Melville’s 1857 novel The Confidence Man. Although I suspect that’s just me.

And they keep on rockin’ on the furious “Say You Love Me or Say Goodnight,” on which Cronin once again almost doesn’t sound like a pussy and Richrath lets rip like he could cut Johnny Thunders in a New York minute. Throw in some ferocious sax by Lon Price, and some Billy Powell-quality piano by Doughty, and what you’ve got is a song that you mock at your own risk.

“Lucky For You” also kicks out the jams, with Richrath coming on like a heavy metal god while the boys in the band provide some nice vocal harmonies. Oh, and on the roughshod “Runnin’ Blind” Cronin actually turns things around by complaining he’s the rock ’n’ roll widow–she’s the one who’s always on the road playing her guitar, leaving Kevin “at home, for cryin’ out loud.” Is that some progressive thinking or what?

What else have we got? I can’t hear “Sing to Me” without thinking of “Cherokee Woman” by Paul Revere and the Raiders, which makes it pretty much indispensable. And I’m pretty sure the country rocker “Do You Know Where Your Woman Is Tonight” was written, sung and performed by Poco, who snuck it onto the album for reasons known only to themselves.

And then there’s the gooey soft stuff. “Blazin’ Your Own Trail Again” is a pretty good power ballad but gets overshadowed by “Time for Me to Fly,” which I consider a smash hit despite the fact it never managed to ooze its way into the Billboard Top 40. Which is a shame, because Kevin sounds so tender and vulnerable you want to gather him into your arms and say, “It’s time to flap those wings, you wittle, wittle pussy bird!”

So who cares if the LP’s jacket made Pitchfork’s list of The Worst Record Covers of All Time? Or that NME featured it on its list of The 50 Worst Album Titles in History? It’s the music that matters, and while you probably have to be clinically insane to think the music on You can Tune a piano, but you can’t Tuna fish. is anything but AOR schlock-rock schlock-pop, I just happen to love AOR schlock-rock schlock-pop. And I’m not alone. So be afraid. Be very, very afraid.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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