As I tend to do from time to time, the other day I was looking at the cd section of my local library and I happened to notice this album, which I hadn't listened to or thought about in years. But I checked it out and put it on, and the memories came flooding back. You see, this album was massive in 1981; it was the #1 album pretty much every week from mid-February until mid-June '81 except for a few weeks in April when Styx's Paradise Theater was #1. There really was no precedent for the band's success, as none of REO's first 9 albums between 1971-79 had reached above #29 on the albums chart, and they had never gone past opening act status. Still, for whatever reason the timing was right and this album and band briefly blew up (the ascendance of MTV would again make them also-rans a few years later, as the band wasn’t exactly comprised of pin ups), and Hi Infidelity will always bring back fond memories of a fun camp-filled summer when I was 12 years old. And you know what? I still like it, even if saying so will never win me points with the hipsters - but who cares about them? There's a reason that these catchy songs were all over the radio - five top 40 hits, to be exact - and the album gets off to a strong start with the popular "Don't Let Him Go." This propulsive rocker may be sympathetic to a womanizing stud, but silly lyrics aside at least it's catchy and it even features a rare fleet fingered keyboard solo by Neal Doughty, as well as a rockin' guitar solo on the outro by Gary Richrath, the band's primary creative force along with singer Kevin Cronin, an acquired taste to many (yours truly included). "Keep On Loving You" became the band's biggest hit (#1) and signature song, and it's a classic power ballad, isn't it? Get those lighters out, prepare to sing along, and don't forget to get your air guitar ready at the 1:50 mark, ok? Admit it, that's a cheesy but effective guitar solo, no? "Take It On The Run" was the other really big hit (#5) and it's another stellar power ballad with a great opening lyric and a wailing guitar solo (Richrath was a seriously underrated guitarist whose playing was my favorite thing about the band), but the album tracks are at least solid for the most part as well, and some are quite good. Granted, the band's lyrics can be cringe inducingly awful like on the top 20 hit "In Your Letter," which is otherwise a nice pop tune influenced by '50s doo-wop, but even an elitist snob like Robert Christgau would have to admit that those are some great riffs on "Tough Guys" (#25) if he's being honest with himself. Even the Little Rascals intro that precedes the song is cute, and again strong album tracks come in the form of the darker, dramatic "Follow My Heart" (conclusion: dumb but rockin'), as well as "Out Of Season" and "Someone Tonight," a pair of bright, catchy, upbeat pop rockers with easily singable harmonized choruses. I could live without the ham-handed, generic rocker "Shakin' It Loose" and the boring, draggy ballad "I Wish You Were There" (which at least has some more decent Richrath guitar), and the album on the whole doesn't exactly register high on the adventurousness meter (some of their earlier albums were much harder rocking). Still, the plusses here (well-written and quite catchy songs) easily overwhelm the minuses (some daft lyrics and a slick, at times dated sound), as radio friendly arena rock was all the rage in 1981, led by REO Speedwagon. Naturally, because it happens so often, the huge album led to a major split within the band, with Richrath and Cronin being the combatants (at around the same time that DeYoung was sparring with Shaw/Young in Styx and right before the Journey warfare started). Success breeds contempt, indeed, but Hi Infidelity was REO's brief moment in the sun, and most of it still sounds good to me.
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