REO Speedwagon – Hi Infidelity (30th anniversary) (CD review)

REO Speedwagon – Hi Infidelity (30th anniversary edition) (Sony Legacy)

The story of Hi Infidelity is one of persistence.  REO Speedwagon had released nine previous albums, changed singers several times and had difficulty settling on a unique style – one record would sound like Grand Funk, while the next, like a harder-edged Eagles.  Despite their troubles, the one place the band was firing on all cylinders was the stage; they toured relentlessly for years. A nod has to also go to their record company, Epic, for allowing the band to continue to release records to only moderate success (nine albums and NO hits seems unimaginable today).

All that hard work eventually paid off in the form of Hi Infidelity, which went on to be the biggest-selling album of 1981, eventually totaling almost 10 million in sales.  What sets this record apart from their previous ones is how it manages to capture some of that magic of their live show in a studio setting.  The entire LP is awash in an echo that makes it sound like you’re hearing it from the stage.  They also smoothed out some of the harder edges of their previous albums, resulting in a more commercial sound.  Even more important is the songwriting; this is their most-focused collection of songs to date.  The REO records of the past had always had that obligatory Chuck Berry cover or goofy instrumental filler – but Hi Infidelity is solid top to bottom with memorable hooks and some of Kevin Cronin’s most impassioned vocals ever laid to tape.

The album opens with “Don’t Let Him Go,” pounding drums and guitar feedback give way to a big chorus with keyboards sprinkled in for good measure. “Keep on Loving You,” with its melodic, soaring guitar solo, and perfect mix of soft piano and tough guitars, became the blueprint for all rock power ballads to come.  It would eventually rocket to number one and turn this little band from Champaign, Illinois into an “overnight sensation” ten years in the making.  “Take it on the Run,” written by guitarist Gary Richrath, has a staggering lead where he seems to run out of frets to play on the guitar.  The rest of the record has just enough diversity to keep things moving.  Whether it’s the dark “Follow My Heart” or the Fifties’ doo wop of “In Your Letter,” the one thing all the tracks have in common is they all give way to a sing a long chorus with excellent harmonies.  Bassist Bruce Hall, who sang a great lead vocal on their previous record on “Back on the Road Again,” turns in another with “Someone Tonight.”

The 30th anniversary edition comes with an entire bonus disc labeled “The Crystal Demos.”  As the story goes, the band booked time in a crummy Hollywood studio just to quickly lay down the songs to see what they had to work with.  Problem is, when they moved to the big expensive studio a few weeks later, they couldn’t recapture the magic of the Crystal recordings.  So, the band ended up adding vocals, harmonies and keyboards to many of the demos to make the record.  The bonus disc shows these songs in a rawer form.  Sure, the vocals aren’t as strong and most tracks are missing the big harmonies and keyboard flourishes of the finished product.  But, it’s interesting to hear the beginnings of what would become a turning point in the band’s history.  “Tough Guys” and “Take it on the Run” sound very similar to the album versions, while “Don’t Let Him Go” has a ferocious ending not found on the actual record.  An excellent example of how they reworked things is “In Your Letter” — in its demo form it has a jangly, almost Beatles’ feel – not nearly as compelling as the early rock n’ roll throwback it would become on the completed album.  If anything, this bonus disc shows that the band was at their best when not having to deal with the stresses of a big, intimidating studio.

This deluxe edition also features some very insightful liner notes from both Cronin and Richrath, as well as great photos and memorabilia that help to capture the excitement that surrounded the band at its peak.  Hi Infidelity still stands as a high watermark for rock in the early Eighties.  Its radio-ready sound would pave the way for the melodic metal of bands like Def Leppard and Bon Jovi that would dominate the remainder of the decade.  There’s an energy from these tracks that still makes them stand up 30 years later.  –Tony Peters