One of the salutary side effects of rock’s indie-fueled progression leftward has been a general elevation of bar-band standards. The number of balding journeymen bashing out today’s chart hits for tonight’s barflies probably hasn’t shrunk, but today’s population of knockabout groups with tried and true virtues, a thorough lack of trendy pretensions and the burning ambition to write and record their own material have appreciably more on the ball than those Johnny B. Goode-enough rockers largely displaced when underground modernists took over most urban sinkholes possessing a stage and a sink.
The Bad Examples is a good example of this upward trend. In its poppy Beatlisms, the Chicago quartet bears more than a passing resemblance to another onetime bar band, Squeeze. Singer/guitarist Ralph Covert writes solidly tuneful songs in a variety of Midwest rock veins (one of which favors the Spin Doctors); the group plays ’em all with engaging skill — if an unfortunate weakness for schmaltz. Although there’s absolutely no need for another desolate number about waiting for the phone to ring (“Statue by the Phone”), and the phrase “sick and tired of being sick and tired” (used in “Ashes of My Heart”) is hereby banished to the songwriters’ book of untouchable clichés, most of the numbers on Bad Is Beautiful say something original in an easily familiar way. “Faces in Picasso’s Notebook” is a touching post-breakup get-together; “One Perfect Moment” removes a skeptical curtain from romance; “Stranger Than Fiction” and “Promises in the Dark” both acknowledge encroaching adulthood: “Someone as old as you should never look for the truth / In promises made in the dark.”
Recorded in a Chicago club after two years of touring (with latecomer lead guitarist John Duich joining Covert, drummer Terry Wathen and bassist Pickles Piekarski), Cheap Beer Night is aptly described in the liner notes as “real people playing & singing real music on real instruments.” The band is tight enough that the rockers sound like a studio record until the applause roars up, but the spirited delivery that comes from kicking it live explains the strategic wisdom of doing it this way. There’s a surprising amount of restrained pop mush for a concert that contains a rip-snorting rendition of the first album’s defiant “Not Dead Yet,” but the Bad Examples also crank it good on “Hey St. Peter,” “The Secret of Television” and the Tom Petty-like “Bad Girl.” The novelty of “Sammy the Dog,” the autogeographical “Long Drive Back From Madison” and a reliable yes-we’re-a-bar-band cover of Bo Diddley’s “Mona” add to the entertainment.