Monthly Archives: February 2020

The Dear Hunter: My New Prog Rock Obsession

It starts innocently enough, and slow, with the download (I think from emusic) of a six tune extended play called “All Is As All Should Be” by a band called The Dear Hunter. This happens maybe two years ago. Undeniably a great performance by extremely gifted musicians and a singer who is both super melodic and lyrically smart, here was a pop rock band playing challenging, memorable music, densely arranged, and expertly recorded. Perhaps because I download it at a time when I am consuming more music than I can carefully listen to, and also perhaps because I don’t have the physical artifact to carry around in the car or plop into the home stereo, this record, as good as it is, does not make it into heavy rotation, so it’s buried and somewhat forgotten.

Fast forward to Fall, 2019. Somehow, The Dear Hunter appears back on my radar. I’m not sure why. Maybe my attention is drawn by the appearance of a new and totally unrelated release by a band called simply Deerhunter. Maybe I listen again to that e.p. by The Dear Hunter and become curious. At any rate, I start to dig around. There’s nothing in my local record store. On the web, maybe in the iTunes Store or in the Amazon stacks, available for download but rare in cd and non-existent on vinyl, I discover an astonishing and prolific catalog of music from these guys going back thirteen or fourteen years. I discover, of particular interest to me, a penchant towards insanely ambitious projects: one, a concept album spread over an entire decade of recording, spanning a stunning five album sequence, all but one of them double l.p. sets, referred to collectively as “The Acts;” the second, a series of nine extended play records, four tunes on each, thirty-six songs altogether, titled “The Color Spectrum,” each record of which comes on a different colored vinyl disc, representing, you guessed it, all the colors in the spectrum. I find myself wandering over to eBay, where I have never made any purchases. I find “The Color Spectrum,” sealed, brand new, all nine 10 inch records in a box set for $300. 36 songs for $300? That’s outrageous, I think, and, to add insult to injury, terribly disrespectful of the musicians, who would not see a penny from the sale. But unable to resist, I place a bid on the thing anyway and I’m immediately and justifiably rejected by the seller. Eventually, I find the entire collection of “The Color Spectrum” on iTunes for the obscenely low price of $7.99. $7.99 for 36 songs. That I can do, but I still feel guilty, as the musicians, just as from the eBay sale, would not see a penny. Well, maybe a penny. I get over it and download the collection. I figure that if the band did not want the sales from iTunes, they would not have made their music available there.

I start “spinning” the entire 36 songs from start to finish. A first time. A second time. A third. Finally, I lose count but come to know these songs relatively well, and to love them, and to love them even more with repeated listenings–because of their wild abandon, their disregard for genre boundaries, their infectious melodies, their head banging tendencies, their humor (albeit infrequent), their musical virtuosity. Conceptually, I can really only guess about the significance of the color spectrum as an organizing principle. My only theory: the tunes, thematically or tonally, might approximate the color from the spectrum on which they sit, therefore, the heaviest of the tunes, and lyrically the darkest tunes, can be found on the black record. That’s the best I can do. And it does seem to be a theory borne out by the collection’s progression, as the tunes seem to get lighter (mostly in musical ways) as one moves through them. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Are the songs good? Yes, they are very good. I decide that I have discovered a new favorite band.

Eventually, as Fall progresses and changes to Winter, I discover that this band is not really a band, per se, but a guy, one Casey Crescenzo, who is the mastermind behind the project, and, I guess you could say, The Dear Hunter. He records and performs with a band of players, one of whom, the drummer, is his brother. I find a few youtube videos of them performing live, in particular songs from “The Color Spectrum,” and my fandom becomes a bit more rabid–as they are on stage as virtuosic and precise and energetic as they are on record. And finally, I find my way to The Dear Hunter website. Here, I find an exciting surprise: “The Acts,” all five albums, 9 full length l.p.’s on colored heavyweight vinyl, a bonus orchestral album, and a download of still another project, are available in a deluxe box set, apparently, only through their website. I stew over the purchase of this box for some time, decide maybe a month after its discovery to pull the trigger, when, lo and behold, I find it sold out through the website store. It can be purchased, it seems, nowhere else. It finally appears on eBay for up to $800. The band (or Casey) seems to have cultivated an air of scarcity about the music. None of the previous albums, save for digital download versions, appear to be available anywhere. eBay retailers are scalping these records to make a hefty profit, aware that it is unlikely that Crescenzo will release another printing.

To stave off my desire to hear this sequence of records, I discover on Spotify and begin to listen to regularly still another double album-length record from 2013 called “Migrant” from The Dear Hunter. The tunes here are every bit as exciting as anything on “The Color Spectrum,” and I am officially hooked. In desperation, I begin to listen to “The Acts” on Spotify. It is undeniably great and ambitious, and a hard physical copy of the project becomes, for reasons not entirely explicable to me, a kind of holy grail, a highly coveted item. A second-pressing prayer is answered. It becomes available again through the website and I snag on one just in time before it is once again sold out within days. The loot is photographed at the top of this essay. Not only is the music incredible, but the packaging and the presentation and the variety of vinyl color is exquisite, the whole thing a master-class in a hybrid of rock and roll and comic book art. No, I did not pay $800 dollars for it; instead, I paid a more than fair and somewhat lower average price than what you might pay at your local record store for a box set with 11 l.p.’s inside.

Now I find myself totally immersed in “The Acts,” listening repeatedly, and doing something that I do rarely anymore, something I would do obsessively when I was a teen: reading the lyrics along with the playback. I’m trying to figure out what these recordings mean, which is not something one usually does when listening to the rock music, especially these days. Even when my favorite childhood prog bands worked with the conceptual (Pink Floyd’s The Wall, or Hemispheres by Rush), it was relatively easy to grasp the gist of the story these artists were trying to tell. This project is perhaps the musical equivalent in rock of reading a rather dense novel. It’s sprawling; its canvas is wide. So it will take me some time. Maybe there’s a blog entry in there somewhere and sometime in the future. Or maybe I will just continue to stew in the mystery of it all.

The music on these records, all of them, “The Color Spectrum,” “Migrant,” “All Is As All Should Be,” and “The Acts,” is bombastic, epic, melodic, cerebral, complex, stylistically wide-reaching, theatrical, cinematic, emotionally evocative, beautiful, serious (but not entirely humorless), and immersive. It’s hard while listening not to feel totally surrounded, totally enveloped. The lyrics demand attention, otherwise, full appreciation is next to impossible. The Dear Hunter seems relatively obscure in the world of pop and progressive rock, but it also seems clear that they have (or he, Casey Crescenzo has)  reached a level of success and achievement independently that would be the envy of any ambitious independent artist. He runs a summer music camp for enthusiasts of The Dear Hunter. I’m not kidding. While I might not be in attendance at his camp, nevertheless, I am all in. But the true test: check back with me in sixth month’s time, or a year. My gut tells me that I’m in for the long haul. I’ve experienced nothing like The Dear Hunter in a long, long, long time, if ever. I’m along for the ride for the foreseeable future. I invite you to join me. At this moment I’ve got nobody to talk to.

 

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Thank You, Neil, Part 2: On Becoming a Rush Completist

I pinned down the year I stopped listening to Rush to 1983. Totally immersed in the New Wave and Punk movements of the day, listening to progressive music I found more avant-garde, like Zappa or Adrian Belew-era King Crimson, it was the year I graduated from high school, the year after the Signals record came out. I liked the singles from that record; “Subdivisions” and “New World Man” were cool tunes, if not significantly less adventurous and progressive than almost everything that came before, at least rhythmically. But I didn’t own that record and didn’t listen to it all the way through until maybe five or six years ago, when I decided to collect the three Rush box sets, Sectors I, II, and III, collecting every album, studio and live, from the very beginning all the way to 1987’s Hold Your Fire and the live album that followed, Show of Hands. Maybe it was a sense of nostalgia (I had sold my entire vinyl collection in 1987 and all my Rush albums with the lot), and the fact that I had gotten over a decade or more of snobbishness against the band, but I felt like it was time to dive back into Rush and I did that in a big way. A few years later, 40 year anniversary reissues of my favorite of the classic Rush records started to come out, and I just had to have Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres on heavyweight vinyl. I was all in. And then, this January of 2020, Mr. Peart, one of the greatest rock drummers of all time, he shuffled off this mortal coil. And while I was mourning that loss and listening to those two favorite Rush albums again, I realized that there was almost 20 years worth of Rush albums since Hold Your Fire that I had never heard–not even one song.

I had homework to do.

Apparently, there was a box set made especially for me, especially for this occasion, a collection of every studio album from 1989 to 2007, seven compact discs in all, released, perhaps, before the band knew that they would ever release another record, or, more likely, released after the band’s exit from the Atlantic record label. There would be only one more studio album after 2007, Clockwork Angels from 2012. So, as far as Rush’s studio albums are concerned, save for this 2012 record, which I have not yet heard, I have become a Rush Studio Album Completist.

I read somewhere recently that since Peart’s death, Rush record sales and streams have soared upwards about 2000%. I am happy to have contributed to that. At the same time, there’s a kind of sadness about the fact that the popularity or public interest in an artist always surges after they’ve died. But I think the joy outweighs the sadness: I have always found great pleasure in discovering a band several albums into a career and then being able to check out the back catalogue, to find out what I had missed. I did this in the 80s with Japan, XTC, The Boomtown Rats, King Crimson, and Frank Zappa. Recently, I’ve done this with Father John Misty, St. Vincent, The Dear Hunter, and The Mountain Goats. Now, I have the pleasure of knowing the music of a band’s trajectory almost 15 years in, and then of being able to explore another 20 years worth of music going forward! So, thank you again, Neil, for that.

I worry: might there be a good reason I never heard a single song from 8 albums over 20 years? Wasn’t there a good reason for falling out of love with Rush in the first place? Are these new records from the catalogue going to have any kind of staying power for me now? Or am I just going to listen to them once, say to myself, okay, I did that, and then put them back away for ever?  Well, let’s find out. Here’s a little listening tour in miniature of every Rush album made from 1989 to 2007! Don’t expect full-blown reviews. These are essentially notes I was taking as I listened to each record for the first time. And, F.Y.I.: I did not do this in one sitting.

Presto: The first song out of the gate is one that I know I’ve heard: that opening riff of “Show Don’t Tell” is, perhaps, at least in my memory, the last of the iconic Alex Lifeson riffs, and maybe the last of the big singles. This tune rocks. It showcases each member of the band at the height of their powers. I’m disappointed in the fade-out, though. I like it when bands write endings and record them, especially on the first track of the album. “Chain Lightning” has kind of a new wave thing going on. Geddy hasn’t yet jettisoned the keyboards. But this is no synth pop. I hear The Police in the third tune, continuing to make impressions on the dynamic Canadian trio. It seems clear that the era of the epic prog tune is over for Rush at this point; not a single song reaches six minutes in length. This was also true, I think, of their previous two albums, Grace Under Pressure and Hold Your Fire. “Scars” is almost a dance tune. I’m not kidding. Miraculously, it works. The title song begins with the line: “If I could wave my magic wand.” Not a great lyric moment for Neil. “Superconductor” out-Polices The Police. Super rocking song. And its central riff is in 7. Yea! More good songs follow. Nothing mind blowing, but nothing either that I would be tempted for a moment to skip over. In the last song, “Available Light,” a piano predominates the verses. This is a very different Rush thing and it’s lovely. The vocal transition between the chorus and the next verse is an exquisite move. Strong ending, friends.

Roll the Bones: “He’s got a road map to Jupiter.” This might be the first Neil lyric, at least that I’m aware of, about riding a motorcycle, unless I’m totally misreading the lyric, which is possible. This first track, “Dreamland,” is a palatable rock song. “We’re only immortal for a limited time.” That’s clever. The title track is funky, a happy chance, after the sleepiness of that second tune. I wanna shake my booty. Oh my, there’s a kind of rap thing going on right now and I’m frightened. It didn’t ruin anything, happily. More rock. It’s impossible not to do that chicken head maneuver along with the beat of “Face Up.” An instrumental? Oh yeah. Super groovy. And it’s got an absurdist title: “Where’s My Thing? (Part IV, ‘Gangster of Boats’ Trilogy)” Whoever said Rush didn’t have a sense of humor? Clearly, when you see them in interview or in that beautifully inspiring documentary, they do, but rarely does it show up in the music. Here it is. This whole thing is in 4–but there are fantastic Neil moments in this one. Things get pretty pedestrian after this. “Ghost of a Chance,” though, is effective pedestrian. “You Bet Your Life” is a celebratory, fun, nutty closing tune. This background vocal chant-thing is exquisite. I’m a fan.

Counterparts: Drum intro after an obligatory, and funny in this case, 1, 2, 3, 4 count-off. “Animate” is the first track here, and it rocks, and it features some lyrics that are at once a return to philosophical and fantastical form for Neil, but also seem to fit nicely into the disaffected and anti-establishment ethos of the early grunge movement. “Stick It Out” continues very much in this vein. This record, so far, is way heavy. Metal, even. I dig. Am I listening to a lost Faith No More album? It sounds great and I just want to bang my head. Some touching and politically pointed lyrics in “Nobody’s Hero,” the closest thing to a rock ballad I’ve heard yet in these albums. Strong, affecting. The next two songs continue to rock, are interesting melodically, and have cool arrangements, but “The Speed of Love” is a little sleepy. “Double Agent” is a rocking thing that in sections returns to progressive odd time signatures and is punctuated with some spooky spoken word. Another instrumental! “Leave That Thing Alone” demonstrates that while musically their instrumental works remain super focused, tight, melodic, their titles can be (or have become) super silly. That was awesome. A favorite moment. There’s nothing unpleasant about the last two songs of this album. Verdict: a very good record.

Test for Echo: It just seems wrong to hear so much 4/4 on Rush albums. The odd time signature was one of those things, as a young man anyway, that defined Rush for me. I’m trying to let that go. On this album, I counted not one crazy drum fill. I could have missed it. I may have spaced out. Geddy’s singing is consistently in lower registers (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Out of the first four discs in the box, this so far is my least favorite. It’s just not very interesting, adventurous, or memorable. Is there a single tune that stands out to me? Maybe I’ve had too much to drink. To be fair, I’ll have to return to this one.

Vapor Trails: That opening drum intro kicks ass. “One Little Victory.” Okay, this is the Rush I love. Not super melodically interesting, but it’s sure rocking. “Ceiling Unlimited”: mo’ better melody. Heady words. We’re out of the 90’s now, Dorothy, but still, this is almost punky grungy. And, apropos of the 90s: running time on this one is 1 hour and 8 minutes. Too long. Another motorcycle song: “Ghost Rider.” Yea! Odd time signatures make a return on “Peaceable Kingdom.” Ooh. That’s almost a Beatle-y bridge. This song is long and has lots of parts. I’ve forgotten where I am. A bit of folk-pop in “How It Is,” decidedly uncool. Titular tune, decidedly sleepy. “Freeze” is maybe the coolest, most melodic and thus most interesting thing on this record, which, overall, tends to be seriously good.

Feedback: An album of covers?! Oh my. What do we have here? Seems kind of antithetical to everything Rush has done since their debut album. Maybe that’s the point. This, perhaps, was all formative shit for the dynamic trio. “Summertime Blues”? Really? Cool idea to replace the spoken word breaks with bass solos and drum solos. Nifty and surprising ending. The Yardbirds cover, a song I don’t know, is groovy. Geddy’s vocal on this is especially pleasing. Buffalo Springfield! Stop, Children, what’s that sound? It’s Rush doing cover tunes. The Who! Neil has said that Keith Moon was a big influence. More Buffalo Springfield! The first and only time I’ve heard the song “Seven and Seven Is” was on an 80s vintage Alice Cooper album. I’m learning things about Love. More Yardbirds! And finally, Robert Johnson a la Cream: “Crossroads.” Neil’s playing the super straight ahead rock drums on this whole collection, but nevertheless, this has been an unexpectedly enjoyable experience.

Snakes and Arrows: The last disc in this collection, Rush, circa 2007. First tune, “Far Cry,”  is rocking, guitar riffy, melodic, and begins with a series of classic Rush intro breaks. I have a good feeling about this one. Hey! The odd time signature makes a comeback in the verse of “Armor and Sword,” a beautiful song that seems to move seamlessly between a bunch of disparate pieces that nevertheless all hang together. “No one gets to their heaven without a fight.” I can dig the use of the “their” pronoun in this lyric. It changes everything. The following two or three songs are not nearly as remarkable, but still undeniably good and smart. In this lovely instrumental, “The Main Monkey Business,” I think I hear references to early Rush tunes–and I think they’re deliberate allusions to 2112 and Hemispheres and not an accidental rehash. Maybe I’m imagining things. Nope, there it is again. Holy cow: that truly rocked. Followed by a kind of blues-thing-not-a-blues-thing. It seems what Rush is trying to do here and in many of these earlier records from this collection (successfully, I might add), is to rediscover themselves as ROCK band. I can’t remember hearing anything on any of these records that might be considered a ballad. The closest we get is a moment here and there of relative quiet–but only a moment. Fist pump. Devil horns. Head bang. They may have been more “easy listening” in the prog era of the 70’s. Is “Faithless” a kind of atheist anthem? I’d have to read these lyrics more closely. “I don’t have faith in faith. I don’t believe in belief. I believe in love, and that’s faith enough for me.” There’s some playfulness, some actual humor, I think, in “Bravest Face,” musically and lyrically. I’m finding this thoroughly enjoyable, all the way through. This last one may be my favorite of the seven–indicating perhaps that they just kept getting better. Rush was a fucking great band. There are bands that I have loved more, bands that I would never have stopped listening to even if you put a gun to my head, that I have been more loyal to over the years, but ultimately, Rush was unstoppable. Only death could keep them down. And that is really saying something.

 

 

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To Be a Life-Long Listener

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In education we often bandy about one of our most sincere hopes for our students and aspirations for ourselves, to be life-long learners. I’m a huge fan of this concept. I never want to be complacent about my learning, about expanding the horizons of my brainiac: I want to read new things, write new things, challenge myself as a reader and writer, learn new artistic expressions, consistently enrich my teaching practice, grow and expand my relationships with others and the planet, become more efficacious emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and become increasingly aware of new knowledge, generally speaking, on a wide range of subject matter. But lately, as I get more and more old-agey, I’ve been thinking of one other kind of life-long learning I want to hold on to, the practice of being a life-long listener of music, not just of the things that I grew up with and that had the most impact on my formative years, but to be intentional and conscious of never letting go of the habit of seeking out what’s new, what’s different, what’s around the corner, what I’ve missed. I’ve managed to keep this practice alive, with near nary a lull, all of my life now, since the grade-school aged me started collecting records. It is a habit that sustains me, a habit I find difficult, and have no interest in breaking. It is a significant part of who I am.

I know musicians and music fans, while still active listeners or performers of music, who have no interest in listening to new music, have no knowledge or experience about contemporary music–especially in the rock/pop genre. They’re either still listening to the soundtrack of their youths, or they limit their listening interests to new interpretations or performances of classical and orchestral music, or, if they’re not doing these things, they just simply don’t listen recreationally at all. I don’t understand these people. I don’t judge them. I’m sure they have perfectly good reasons for these habits, and I respect that. I just know that if it were true of me–it would make me excessively sad.

I’ve said this before, and other people have said it too, perhaps more eloquently, that music acts like a kind of photo album, the way music can stir memories, very vivid memories of the times and places and emotions of our lives. When I listen to The Beatles and The Monkees, I’m a child again; when I listen to early Rush, I’m in 7th and 8th grade; my favorite new wave bands take me straight to my high school years; Thomas Dolby’s records take me through college and XTC took me all the way from a junior in high school to an adult with a teaching career–I mean, you get the picture. I like to think that when I’m 70, I’ll be listening to records by St. Vincent and The Dear Hunter, and I’ll be reliving my 50’s! And then, I hope, as a 70 year old man, I’ll be making the trek to the record store (if such things still exist) to grab the new album by one of the bands I discovered in my 60’s, or a band or songwriter I’ve just discovered. For my 70th birthday I’ll ask my family to gift me the new record by Insert Groovy Band Name Here, and I will be happy as a schoolboy to receive it. And I have become exceedingly jazzed lately to be introduced to new music by my son, 14, who, in the digital age, far from developing the collector’s aesthetic, is still super enthusiastic about the music he loves, recently turning me on to Joji and Bill Wurtz. That’s the shiznit. To be a life-long listener.

 

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