Trick or trifle... Cheap Trick didn't mean to become a '70s answer to the Beatles, it's just that their timing was so impeccable and their intentions so real. The Illinois quartet -- comprising Robin Zander, Rick Nielsen, Tom Petersson and Bun E. Carlos -- came up the right way, via smoky nightclubs, crazy hours and low pay; they cited all the right British Invasion influences; and they simultaneously aped and reveled in all the important rock-star cliches. They were so easy to like.

Equally likable is Sex, America, Cheap Trick, a four-CD box set compiled under the loving supervision of the band members. It was released during the summer, but I'm just getting to it now. Initially, I didn't understand what took me so long, but the longer I thought on it, the more I realized that what I'd been really putting off was having to reassess a band I'd always seen as underachievers.

My faith in the group was shaken soon after 1979's Cheap Trick at Budakon, the brilliant, wildly popular live release that, nonetheless, started Cheap Trick down the road to self-parody. It was as if the group showed new wave the way to the charts, only to abandon what it started for the vain and predictable excesses that the scrappy Cheap Trick persona had originally mocked.

By 1988, Cheap Trick was turning out the sort of grinless AOR drek so ably epitomized by Lap of Luxury's grim power ballad "The Flame" (which, as happens, was a number one single that year). Still, the group was a glorious and prolific singles machine in its three-year prime, second only, perhaps, to the Cars. They fashioned witty, attitudinal few-minute slices of hard-pop precision by the dozens; charismatic super-dork Rick Nielsen was never more than a few winks away from a radio-tailored hook. "Oh, Candy," "Mandocello," "Surrender," "I Want You to Want Me," "Dream Police," "Way of the World": Nielsen went through memorable choruses with the same frequency he does strings on his multi-necked guitars.

All those songs are wisely included on Sex, America, Cheap Trick, along with assorted B-sides, demos, live tracks (including a curious medley of the Velvet Underground's "Waiting for the Man" and "Heroin" with Petersson on vocals) and a disheartening preponderance of drivel from the band's autumn years. Vintage Cheap Trick was found in abundance on the band's first few releases, Cheap Trick, In Color and Heaven Tonight, and heard less and less as time wore on; as a result, discs two and three of Sex, America are patchy at best. There was a reason why Cheap Trick stashed away so much unused material in its vaults. They knew junk when they heard it.

As whole, though, Sex, America scores more often than it bores. Critic Ira Robbins's booklet bio on the band does a fun and detailed job of putting the Cheap Trick mystique -- something just as reliant on image as it was on music -- into clear perspective. Among the essay's more curious revelations: the "Bun E." in Venezuela-born drummer Bun E. Carlos's stage name is short for "Bunezuela"; band founder Nielsen wasn't born wearing a baseball cap; and Cheap Trick's original name was Sick Man of Europe.

Trick touters may argue otherwise, but the band's main function in rock history seems to have been that of translating trends for the mainstream. With humor, songwriting and showmanship, they made punk and new wave easier to swallow for Middle America. Vigorously executed and instantly memorable, the best Cheap Trick (as found on the box set's first two CDs) feigned disposability while sneaking in heartening injections of substance and personality ... scads and scads of personality. Sex, America's compilers might have done better to follow the less-inclusive strategy of the Cars's Rhino Records anthology and reduced this ungainly four-disc set to a more consistent two. This would have served as a better reminder of why Cheap Trick was once so great by taking the emphasis off the many reasons why that greatness waned.

Etc.... Creative polarization has claimed the life of Houston's Libertine, but expect its four talented members to stay visible around town in some new project or another. ZZ Top has extended the touring schedule behind its toughest release in years, Rhythmeen, which means Houstonians likely will have to wait until summer '97 to see the band. Just in time for the holidays, local hip-hop empire Rap-A-Lot is celebrating a decade in the business with 10th Anniversary -- Rap-A-Lot Records, a 14-track compilation of the label's most influential artists, including the Geto Boys, Big Mike and the 5th Ward Boyz. Tune into the Cable Access channel Tuesday to see footage of local metal-punk sinners Saddlebag in concert at Emo's. Better than Ezra plays Thursday at Numbers in hopes of convincing us that its bland alt-rock output is tastier live (good luck). Friday, picker supreme Junior Brown takes the stage with his loving wife and loyal rhythm section at the Satllite Lounge. Sunday, it's another Celtic Christmas at Garden in the Heights, with Ceili's Muse, Scottish Rogues, Gordian Knot, Wyndnwyre and Michael Martin and Deorai on hand to celebrate.

-- Hobart Rowland

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Hobart Rowland