Strains of cynicism

News people are cynics. They should be skeptics rather than cynics, but they’re not.

Sports people also are cynics. But they’re very different. Here’s how:

News people will follow anything political no matter how scummy the people involved might be. In fact, the scummier the better. A crook who speaks with little regard for truth and decency generates better stories than an amiable low-key representative. The most strident spokespeople get coverage for their organizations or their blogs.

Sports people are more willing to declare something — a team, a game, a sport — illegitimate or unworthy because they loathe the people involved. If they get sick of the NFL and NBA, they’ll turn to something they deem less corrupt like Little League or Patriot League football.

I’m not sure which is worse. “News” has become much less useful as it descends into a mere catalog of extremists. Reporters and bloggers take seriously a lot of people who really should be ranting at ducks in a neighborhood park. That attention helps those people sell books and get elected, and that’s a Bad Thing.

But the news folks are at least a little more open-minded than sports people.

What brought this on? This post, in which a guy a Blogcritics declares this summer devoid of interesting sports.

Here’s a partial list of what’s he ignoring:

1. An unusually competitive America’s Cup
2. Possibly the best men’s tennis player ever
3. The possible self-destruction of a golf prodigy
4. The emergence of an auto racing pioneer
5. International soccer all over
6. A scary-fast U.S. sprinter

All of which makes me glad I’m not a cynic, however uncool I might look.

The semi-intelligent guide to Rush, Part I

Two reasons I’m doing this. First, I’ve always wanted to do an “Idiot’s Guide,” Jefito-style. Second, Jefito recently took up a Rush song (Dreamline) and made me realize I had mixed feelings about the band’s 1990s output. Third (because I can’t count), I have mixed feelings about the new one. So I’ll go on some self-exploration and sort out my feelings, but instead of venting about relationships (happy) or work, I’ll riff on an often-great band.

Should be fun, right? Right? Aw, come on — would it help if I told you I think the new one sounds a little like Primus?

I’m tackling the first three here. Enjoy. And see the whole catalog at Amazon.

Rush (1974)

It’s easy to dismiss this album as a pedestrian clone of the blues rock on FM radio at the time. cranked out by a couple of Canadian 20-year-olds who happened to impress a few people on the bar-band circuit. AllMusic does exactly that, giving it a lowly two stars. It bears little resemblance to the rest of their output, simpler both lyrically and musically. It’s the only album released with original drummer John Rutsey.

And yet a couple of songs live on after all these years, which is more than you can say for, say, early Alanis Morissette releases. Finding My Way is built on a couple of terrific riffs that have lasted in Rush shows to this day, with Neil Peart expanding on Rutsey’s original drum parts. Working Man, which broke the band, shows up from time to time. For a couple of decades, the typical Rush encore included a gleeful rip through In the Mood, perhaps just for the irony of a couple of 40something parents singing about bad pick-up lines.

No, the other five songs don’t offer much. But .375 isn’t a bad batting average for a debut by a couple of guys who had just found their stage names and wouldn’t be old enough to drink in today’s America.

Fly By Night (1975)

AllMusic again gives two stars, but the review is kinder: “It showed that the young band was leaving their Zep-isms behind in favor of a more challenging and original direction.”

Neil Peart’s arrival — Rush’s only personnel change in 30-plus years — changed the band in two ways. The lyrics were more interesting — Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson would contribute a few more words over the next couple of albums but would eventually give the new guy free rein. And the sound was more ferocious.

Both traits were in full effect on the opener, Anthem. (See cheesy, badly synced, embedding-disabled YouTube clip.) Peart’s power is a firm backdrop for Lifeson and Lee’s riffs, which were already much more complex than what you heard on the debut. Lyrically, Peart was in his Ayn Rand phase — I’d love to interview him today and find out how he reconciles this one with the social consciousness of current Rush work — but it was eloquently expressed. Besides, a little libertarian streak isn’t such a bad thing, right? It’s not like he’s Ted Nugent.

The titletrack also benefits from some propulsive Peart fills, along with a classic riff that is still the first thing I play when someone hands me a guitar to check it out.

By-Tor and the Snow Dog is as silly as it sounds, but it’s a fun occasional listen and a worthwhile experiment in writing an extended suite.

Most of the songs here aren’t bad — Rivendell is a pretty change of pace and Beneath, Between & Behind is a good marriage of a clever Peart lyric and a shifty rhythm. Best I Can, with a Lee lyric, falls a little flat.

Caress of Steel (1975)

Like U2’s October, you have to figure this is one of those albums they just, forgive the pun, rushed out. It’s easily the least memorable Rush album to this day.

And yet it has one powerful song that lasted in live shows for quite a while — Bastille Day. Good riff, sound retelling of the French Revolution — not bad at all.

That’s followed by I Think I’m Going Bald. Yes, you read that correctly. Rush recorded a song called I Think I’m Going Bald. (Funny thing — Geddy Lee is nowhere near bald, 32 years later.)

Then it’s Lakeside Park, a dreary look at the supposed good times they had hanging out in the park.

And then the first two attempts at breaking the 10-minute mark — The Necromancer and The Fountain of Lamneth.

You could almost consider this an outtakes album with one gem and a couple of experiments gone awry.

But those experiments laid the groundwork for what was to come. (See, aren’t you already looking forward to Part II? If not, I’ll have other content here soon. I promise.)

Programming note

I don’t usually apologize for long absences from the blog, but I figured it’d be worthwhile to let you know what I’ve been up to:

– Weekend trip to Boston
This story
This story
– Story to run in another week or so
– The usual blog
– Parenting

We resume regular programming now. Wait, no, I don’t have regular programming. So in this case, I’m going to start a series on Rush. But I’ll mix up topics so you’re not reading about Rush until September.

Why Spinal Tap rings true

“There’s such a fine line between clever and stupid.” — David St. Hubbins, in This is Spinal Tap

“I don’t know whether you’d call him a genius or just a complete idiot.” — Rick Allen (Def Leppard) describing late bandmate Steve Clark in a VH1 Classic Albums piece on Hysteria

Song review — Midnight Oil, "Feeding Frenzy"

(Lyrics)

The late, great Musician magazine once had a story on Midnight Oil that recounted how Aussie radio stations refused to play their early stuff because the band were “antisocial.” Musician rightly noted what a crock that is, that Midnight Oil may sound angry but are one of the most socially conscious bands around. As I recall from various interviews, they’re actually a fine bunch of Christian lads*, though they never recorded anything with a religious theme that I know of. (Maybe on one earlier work.) They’re not yelling out of hate. They’re yelling to make things better. And it’s not Peter Garrett’s fault he’s tall, bald and a little intimidating.

Yet the Oils did indeed sand down the punk edges a bit as they matured. The breakthrough 1987 album Diesel and Dust — a classic if there ever was one — mixes up tones and textures with great skill.

But even after DandD, the follow-up Blue Sky Mining and the requisite three-year breaks in those days for bands that had “made it,” Midnight Oil could still summon some righteous fury.

This is the opening track in Earth and Sun and Moon, which would prove to be something of a commercial swansong for the Aussies, at least outside their home country. (They recorded three more studio releases before Garrett went into politics full-time and got elected to Parliament.) It’s clear from the first note they’re not messing around.

Bones Hillman lays down a menacing bass line over Rob Hirst’s shimmering cymbals. Once that’s established, Jim Moginie takes a swipe at the organ, then slowly builds a chord from the bottom up and brings it back down. The organ fades, the bass keeps going, and then Hirst batters out a quick roll and a powerful fill. By the time Martin Rotsey (I’m guessing, barring some overdubs) announces his presence with a double-bend, you know you’re about to hear something important, like a message from some musically proficient cousin of the Emergency Broadcast System.

Yet this is one of Garrett’s more abstract lyrics. He’s going for imagery here, painting a picture of our lives of consumption teetering precariously on the edge of a threatened Earth.

The bass line chugs through the verses, letting Moginie and Rotsey hint at the chord structure with a few ominous notes in the distance.

The band’s dramatic skill shines most in the bridges, with swelling organ chords and the Oils’ trademark Arpeggios of Doom. Seriously — this band can take simple arpeggios and make it sound as if the flood is coming, and you’d better get moving on that ark. (Ah — NOW we find the Christian themes.)

Not one of their better-known songs, but a good concise introduction to the band in case you haven’t heard them before. On the album, it forms a potent one-two with My Country, which reminds us of the old saying about patriotism being the last refuge of the scoundrel. After that, it’s not their most consistent album. The single Truganini and the acoustic-driven Bushfire are the standouts.

* — if you want to read about Garrett’s take on faith and politics, check his site for an eloquent speech.