In its heyday, during the ’70s and early ’80s, REO Speedwagon was — take your choice — either a true populist band, honest and unpretentious, or the epitome of empty mainstream rock. The group’s 1981 album, Hi Infidelity, sold eight million copies, making it one of the most popular records ever. But by the end of the ’80s, things had taken a turn for the worse. In ’87 the band released an album that didn’t sell well; in ’88, the drummer and lead guitarist quit. Now REO Speedwagon — just like Bad Company, Cheap Trick, and other formerly defunct groups of past decades — is back, with new musicians and an album whose whimsical title, The Earth, a Small Man, His Dog and a Chicken is, unfortunately, more original than any of its music.
The band now has two keyboard players and in general a harder, tighter, more up-to-date sound, with a bigger beat. One cut, ”Love in the Future,” does stand out, but more for its naive words than its music. Lead singer Kevin Cronin bills it as ”the first ecological love song”: ”If we can’t see through the air we breathe,” he sings, ”What will love in the future be?” But overall the album sounds like what you’d get if you took all the rock & roll of the past five years and threw it into a blender. REO Speedwagon is either a very honest band or a very bland one; whatever choice you made in the past you’ll probably still make today. C+