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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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Thank You, Neil

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Somewhat unusually, I think, because it wasn’t a huge hit, the first album I heard from Rush was the debut, the only Rush record without a Neil Peart on the drums. My brother had it, and during those days, as young as I was, my brothers’ and my sister’s records just seemed to BE there. I had zero understanding about why they bought the records they bought, where and when they bought them, and how they got turned on to certain artists in the first place. But my brothers’ and sister’s record collections were my earliest music education. I got my pop education from my sister (The Monkees, The Beatles, The Supremes, The Mamas and the Papas, Herman’s Hermits), and I got my rock education from my brothers (Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Doors). And then the first Rush album made its way into my brother David’s collection. I was 10 years old. I remember, if not falling in love with it, liking it almost at first listen and listening to it repeatedly when I was with my brother. I think he had already, at 20, an apartment of his own. He was an adult and was listening to music for adults and whenever I would visit him, part of what we’d do would be to listen to music. This record was raw, energetic, and gutsy. Sure, a little like Zeppelin but distinct enough to make it seem new and original to me. Almost simultaneously, I think, I had grade school buddies whose older siblings were playing in rock bands, and when invited to listen to them rehearse, I heard for the first time young musicians covering “Working Man” and “What You’re Doing” from that first Rush album. A glorious confluence of experiences that ultimately and magically transformed my little brain into the brain of a musician.

It was about this time in my life, as I began to blossom as an avid music listener, when my Dad started to allow me to order records from his Columbia House record club. I had officially caught the record collecting bug. Eventually, becoming too impatient to wait for the package in the mail and having the first money of my own in the form of a weekly allowance, I started making the foray to the local record shop within walking distance of my suburban home. I know with some certainty that the first record I ever bought with my own money was Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and then, shortly after that, not Rush’s second album, but their third, Caress of Steel. It was the first Rush album I bought with my own money. I was a junior high kid by then, maybe 12 years old, and I was listening to Neil Peart’s drumming for the first time.

I had been drumming already for awhile. I think I got my first drum kit when I was in the sixth grade. It was cheap and shitty, but I played enough and listened carefully enough that in pretty short order I was playing along to a lot of my favorite records. I could play along to almost any Kiss song, not expertly, but passably. The most challenging thing Peter Criss ever did was probably the “Detroit Rock City” groove and I’m pretty sure it would be awhile before I could pull that off, but even as a 12 year old I could tell you that there was nothing especially inventive or interesting about the drum solo on Kiss Alive. It was boring and pedestrian–but for a 12 year old behind his first drum kit, it was super exciting (if not easy) to ape.  This drumming on Rush’s Caress of Steel was a different thing altogether. There were breaks. There were odd time signatures. This was a really big drum set, maybe the first double-bass drum kit I had ever seen. Here was a song that was 13 minutes long or 20 minutes long. There were dynamics. And there were these fills that just seemed superhuman. And Peart’s lyrics: they fueled my young imagination unlike anything I had ever read in school and unlike any other song lyrics I had ever heard. So listening to Neil Peart was doing some magical stuff to my pre-teen brain–not only was it turning me into a more sophisticated listener and exponentially raising the bar for me of what great drumming was about, but it was pushing my literacy forward. As a twelve year old, I began writing what I thought was serious fiction. I wrote a novel inspired by a song on Caress of Steel called The Necromancer! I think I still have that thing in a box somewhere in the basement. I’m sure it’s terrible, but whatever inspired a twelve year old boy to handwrite hundreds of pages of bad fiction must have been pretty great.

I fell a little out of love with Rush in the 80’s when I became consumed by the new wave movement, and in the 90’s I came to think of them, especially in the lyric department, as kind of a silly band. They were just too earnest, too serious, never ironic, kind of precious, and sometimes pedantic. But in the last five or six years, as the seminal records that were so much a part of my growing up turn 40 years old (2112, A Farewell to Kings, and Hemispheres), I’ve started listening again. I’ve come full circle. The things I was critical about become the things I most admire and respect about them. They’re great sounding, exciting records. I don’t listen to them every week or even every month, but when I do revisit these records several times over the course of a year, and as a result of learning about Neil Peart’s passing, all this past weekend, I rediscover their greatness and am reminded that, even though there have been other musicians whose music has better withstood the test of time for me, Neil Peart’s drumming and writing, more than any other musical figure, had a most monumental influence on my life.

Thank you, Neil.

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Educational Music Shopping: Why Did These Artists Win Grammys?

Okay, I know exactly why the Laurie Anderson/Kronos Quartet record won a Grammy: because it is awesome. But I wondered about the other winners, the ones that, of course, I had heard of (you’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard of them), but had never listened to. So, at Music Millennium a couple of weekends ago, the oldest independent record store in Portland, Oregon, and one of my favorite places on the planet, I did some record shopping, and in an unusual state of looking for nothing in particular, I decided in the end to buy albums from artists that, while having minimal interest in heretofore, won a Grammy, and thus earned the distinction of the I-should-probably-know-something-about-this-record award from yours truly. I bought two albums that weekend from such artists: “Anthem of the Peaceful Army” by Greta Van Fleet, and “By the Way, I Forgive You” by Brandi Carlile. It was actually a different album from Greta Van Fleet that had the honor of winning a Grammy, but this was their most recent thing and, I thought, should be most representative of what they’re doing presently. They won for Best Rock album, and Carlile won for Best Americana album.

Let’s talk about the rock. Greta Van Fleet are clearly superbly talented young musicians. There can be no doubt about that. They’re a tight band, each member obviously not just proficient but accomplished on his instrument. They’re all very handsome young dudes as well, and the fact that three of them are brothers ads a kind of irresistible adorability factor. They have all those things going for them. Again, I’m not listening to the record that earned them a Grammy, but the one immediately and closely after. Are the songs good? Yes, on the whole, the songs are good. Is this band Grammy worthy? I have a few concerns.

The buzz around Greta Van Fleet is that they are a 21st century Led Zeppelin. And at first listen, and second listen, and third, this comparison seems absolutely appropriate. The lead singer out Robert Plants Robert Plant. He’s probably more virtuosic than the original, but if at times while listening to this record you close your eyes (which is a very silly thing to say, as the music will sound the same whether your eyes are open or closed), you will think you are hearing a long lost but sonically superior Led Zeppelin song. It’s possible that this singer is just doing his own thing, and his own thing happens to sound like Robert Plant’s thing, but it’s also just as easy to conclude that this guy is deliberately aping the mighty 70’s hard rock singer. It’s that close. And because, stylistically speaking, everything about this record seems to be paying tribute to 70’s hard rock bands, it’s difficult to believe that these boys were not studying the Led Zeppelin catalogue while they were in their diapers. And when he doesn’t sound like Robert Plant, the singer sounds like Geddy Lee. And sometimes he sounds like Geddy Lee sounds like Robert Plant, you know, a là Rush’s debut record. And not only is his singing eerily similar to these two giants, but his lyrics seem also straight out of the “Misty Mountain Hop”/”Kashmir”/”Anthem”/”By-Tor and the Snow Dog” songbook. And I find them silly. Rush’s lyrics are also silly, but when I fell in love with them first I was in the seventh grade. I think this record would have been infinitely more interesting to me in the 7th grade. But while I’m listening and driving, I’m banging my head. I’m a 7th grader again.

I read that Alice Cooper also dubbed these guys the new Led Zeppelin, and said they were doing a tremendous service for guitar rock in the 21st century, and if you love the Zep and wish they were still making records, I suppose Greta Van Fleet will satisfy those desires. My feeling is, yes, that could be a very good thing, but their stuff is super derivative, not original or groundbreaking in the slightest, and, I guess, not very interesting to me outside of its rocky goodness (no small potatoes), and perhaps, if it were my decision, Greta Van Fleet would not be worthy of a Grammy.  Nevertheless, I like this record and will listen to it a bunch more times likely before I tire of it.

Let’s move on to the Americana. First of all, what the hell’s Americana music? I’ve only been hearing this term for the last six or seven years, have played with musicians who consider themselves playing in this genre, but I’m still not completely sure I know what it is. But apparently though, it’s so much a thing now so as to have its own category of awards at the Grammys. So let’s look it up, shall we? From wikipedia:

Americana is an amalgam of American music formed by the confluence of the shared and varied traditions that make up the musical ethos of the United States, specifically those sounds that are merged from folk, country, blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, gospel, and other external influences.

The definition on AmericanaMusic.org is super similar, but they’ve added this little nugget, which I find instructive, that while Americana draws from all these other genres, it results “in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band.” What I find kind of funny about these definitions is that they seem to fit almost any musical outfit that is cross-pollinating genres. How “distinctively roots-oriented” could you get while playing around between six or seven different traditions–how could that be “a world apart”? I don’t have anything against artists and musicians who are not squarely in a particular camp, if fact, I admire that kind of thing, I’m just having difficulty deciding if Americana is an actual genre or whether it’s just a label we use when we can’t describe the genre but nevertheless decide that it feels genuinely American. Sidenote: listen to Elton John’s
“Madman Across the Water” and tell me that that record sounds British. I dare you.

So Brandi Carlile won the best album award in the category of Americana for “By the Way, I Forgive You”. What intrigues me about my response to this record is that, while it is a type of thing stylistically that I would be usually much less interested in than I would be in a record from, say, Greta Van Fleet, I like Carlile’s album a lot more than I like “Anthem of the Peaceful Army.”

At first, its decidedly country influence out of the gate puts me off some. Typically and with few exceptions, I do not favor country music. I especially do not like contemporary popular country music. Brandi Carlile’s voice is unabashedly a country sounding voice and the first tune on the album, “Every Time I Hear That Song,” seems to me an unabashedly country song. But she is none of the things I hate about country, and while I’m not a huge fan of that opening track, “The Joke” is something different altogether. This thing is an anthem. It’s got tremendous power, lyrically and musically. The first time I heard the song, I almost wept. In fact, in every subsequent listen, I can feel that tug. One of these times I think I’m going to have to let loose. It’s like the “We are the Champions,” the “Shout,” or the “We Are Young” of Americana. This is one thing that makes this album significantly different and better. Brandi Carlile is an ADULT and she’s writing very seriously about serious adult things; there’s no ice and snow in fairyland here (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And the music, if it’s intended to be roots oriented, seems to me at times much more sophisticated, more progressive. Check out that third tune, “Hold Out Your Hand,” a tune with a jaunty little bluegrass verse that busts into a kind of slamming, again anthemic, four on the floor stomp swing in the chorus and culminates in this shouty, chant-like spoken word thing, coupled with one of those nonsensical background vocal hooks worthy of The Beatles. And, country twang or no country twang, Carlile is a powerful and interesting singer.

Americana? I guess so. There’s country here, blue grass, folk, rock, etc. Rootsy? Okay, but there’s orchestration on this album as well, beautiful and lush string orchestration, and that don’t strike me as rootsy. She sounds like Elton John trying to sound like an American. Maybe “By the Way, I Forgive You” is an Americana record simply because it defies easy categorization. That’s okay. I’m easy. Is it Grammy worthy? I think if it can make a 54 year old man want to cry, sure. Give this record a Grammy.

Postscript Ramblings: I’m kind of jonesing to get back to my alphabet project, the game of listening to a single album by every artist represented in my compact disc collection in alphabetical order and then writing about it. I started this project years ago, only got half way through the letter H, and then stopped. Mostly it’s because I cannot stop buying new music and new music listening seems to always take precedent. And I’ve spent lots of time listening to “new” music by artists that I’ve already written about in the alphabet, namely, rediscovering the entire early catalog of Bowie and the entire entire catalog by Kate Bush. And I’ve been listening to a lot of vinyl. And I’ve been discovering, like I have above, other new things that have ere now been completely out of my wheelhouse: Solange, Childish Gambino, Anderson .Paak, Richard Hawley. I have to forgive myself for being distracted by so much good music pulling me away from the alphabet. I’ll get back to it some day, maybe someday soon. If this appeals to you, let me know.

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