The still-coherent guide to Rush, Part IX

The last part before the last part, which will be my long-awaited opinion on the new one, Snakes and Arrows.

So when we last left Rush, we thought we might be leaving them for the last time. Neil Peart had lost his daughter suddenly, then his wife after a few months that must have been sheer torment.

I haven’t read Peart’s account of his return from the brink, Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, because I’d surely bawl every other page. But some folks of stronger constitution have read it, and they’ve put useful facts in the sprawling Wikipedia entries on Rush. Among them, from the Neil Peart entry: At his wife’s funeral in 1998, Peart told his bandmates to “consider me retired.”

From interviews I’ve seen with Lee and Lifeson (Peart, as far as I know, no longer gives interviews), they didn’t quite give up on their bandmate, but they were willing to give him all the time he needed. Lee did his solo album, which seemed less fun than, say, the weird little solo projects by members of Yes.

Peart proved resilient. In 2000, he remarried. In early 2001, as Lee or Lifeson put it in an interview on R30, he told his bandmates he was ready to be gainfully employed.

So, a new album in 2001, right? That’s five years after Test for Echo — not that speedy for a band that took two decades to slow from six-month gaps to a three-year gap, but not bad for a bunch of guys in their late 40s. When does it come out?

Not so fast. This one took so long you would’ve thought they were in the studio with Tom Scholz or Mutt Lange. (Digression: How did it ever take Scholz, Boston’s grouchy leader, seven years to come up with “I’m gonna take you by the hand and make you understand, Amanda / I loooooove you / (pause for awkward cymbal clink)”?)

Vapor Trails (2002)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia | Lyrics/etc.)

So I was in my living room at the old house, bouncing around after hearing Baltimore’s 98Rock (RIP, Lopez) tell me they’d have the new Rush song up next. I was actually nervous, as most Rush fans surely were. How would they sound? Would they be gloomy after Peart’s tragedy? And would Peart still be a monster on drums?

Listen for yourself. They didn’t waste a second in answering those questions. Peart unleashes a furious double-bass drum attack a la Alex Van Halen in Hot for Teacher — often duplicated by Peart wannabes on YouTube, to varying success. Lee is practically chortling through the song as he pounds out some propulsive bass.

That’s One Little Victory, an emphatic declaration that Rush was back, and they weren’t just ready to roll. They were ready to rock.

And the whole album rocks. Maybe a little too hard.

Perhaps it’s engineer-turned-producer Paul Northfield, perhaps it’s the non-Bob Ludwig mastering, perhaps it’s Alex Lifeson’s sudden romance with a “heavy” guitar sound, but this is absolutely not an album for audiophiles. Parts of it sound like my high school “band” (me, a four-track recorder and some “singers”) running everything through a Peavey amp with “compression.” Listening to this album from start to finish will give you a headache.

It’s not just the sound quality. Rush finally flushed the keyboards on this one, relying instead on a bunch of overdubs, particularly Lee’s voice. Ask anyone who dislikes Rush to name a least favorite aspect of the band, and “Lee’s voice” will be the answer. For 20 years or so, he pared down the screech and learned to make the most of what he has. But layers of Lee singing “whoooaaaaa” do not pleasant sounds make.

And that’s a pity, because on the whole, the songs here are as strong as any of the CD era:

One Little Victory is an instant classic, especially in the context of Rush’s return from the events of the past six years.

Ceiling Unlimited bogs down in the verses but soars toward the finale, doubling the positive vibe of the opener.

Ghost Rider, a little slower, is an engaging portrait of someone traveling a long road.

Peaceable Kingdom is a powerful song of despair and sympathy in the wake of 9/11. (Which happened eight months into the recording process — good thing they were taking their time.)

That’s the first four. The titletrack, Earthshine and Nocturne are all solid as well. All told, it’s Rush’s heaviest collection of songs in quite a while.

I’ll never understand why they released Secret Touch, one of the weakest songs in the Rush catalog. Sweet Miracle is just OK.

The flaws, other than the production — The Stars Look Down and How It Is push Lee out of his vocal range, and Lifeson’s odd insistence on foregoing guitar solos leaves a few unfilled spaces in songs that are a little too long at 5-6 minutes.

Aside from the sound quality, it’s a worthy comeback — stronger than Test for Echo at the very least.

They were almost derailed again with a bizarre incident in Naples, Fla., when Lifeson’s son was being removed from a New Year’s Eve celebration. Lifeson went to his aid. Somehow, the Collier County deputies needed several people and Tasers to subdue a bookish rock guitarist in his 50s. That doesn’t speak too well to their policing skills.

The local media at the time — why, why did I choose this profession? — sided with the deputies against letter-writing Rush fans, ignorantly figuring Lifeson was some no-good heavy metal star. Lifeson and his son wound up with probation in a plea deal. Then Lifeson ripped into them with some harsh words and legal action.

Thankfully, Rush was able to tour and enjoy the fruits of their comeback. They didn’t hop right back into the studio-tour grind. Instead, they had some fun with some novel releases …

Rush in Rio (2003)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia | Review)

I confess. I missed the boat. I was only vaguely aware that this was being released, and I didn’t see the point of releasing another live album only one studio album after Different Stages. (The old “four studio, one live” approach went out the window here.) Besides, I saw them live on this tour, which was a fantastic experience I figured couldn’t be duplicated.

But Rush did a few remarkable things here:

– They documented a complete show … and a huge one, with 40,000 fans revved up and singing along.

– They entered the age of new media. This album has gone gold (Vapor Trails, despite a #6 position on the charts and 1.6M in sales by Wikipedia’s count, has not). The video has gone multiplatinum.

So in short: My bad. This one’s obviously huge. The reviews above are ecstatic.

Feedback (2004)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia | Review)

Celebrate the 30th anniversary of the band’s debut by becoming the 8,784th band to record Summertime Blues? Why the hell not?

We’d all love to reunite with whatever passed for our high school band and rip through all the old standards, wouldn’t we? What better way to turn back the clock?

Now imagine if that band, rather than leaving instruments lying around in a basement for 20 years, could still play. Really, really well.

That’s Feedback. Eight ’60s tunes the guys all learned when they were teenagers in Canada, performed here with the gusto of a rollicking high school reunion and the skills of rock’s finest instrumentalists. It’s almost as much fun to hear as it must have to record.

All eight songs are pretty good — my pick is The Seeker.

Like a band fulfilling its contractual obligation before ditching its record company, I’m cheating a little bit here and going to the compilation …

R30 (2005)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia)

I may have missed the boat on Rush in Rio, but I made sure to get this one. The “meat” is a Rush show in Frankfurt, omitting a couple of Vapor Trails tunes already included on Rush in Rio. That’s entertaining in itself — a great live performance with solid camera work, starting with a peculiar introduction of Jerry Stiller griping that “they never do Bangkok.”

Only Rush, folks. OK, maybe Barenaked Ladies. Is Canada that much funnier than the U.S.?

Added to the mix here — a lot of rare clips from old performances, TV appearances, etc. Then some interviews showing the band as a bunch of thoughtful, self-effacing guys, plus their humor-injected induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.

And if you want to hear the songs in your car or upload to your iPod, just take the CDs, also featuring the Frankfurt show.

Little wonder this one is also multiplatinum.

Rush has plenty of compilations — the inessential The Spirit of Radio: Greatest Hits 1974-1987 has gone gold even though most of the same songs were remastered on the Retrospective CDs, which are now combined onto one release ironically called Gold. With Rush, you’re cheating yourself if you’re just focusing on the “hits.” Get some of the studio albums, R30 and perhaps a couple of the live albums, then fill in the rest at iTunes.

I’ll wrap up with a quick guide to making your own Rush collection if you don’t already have one. But we’re not quite done. Because Rush itself isn’t quite done …

I’m white, and I’m capitalizin’ …

From YouTube’s tireless efforts to archive everything on video, it’s pre-stardom Jim Carrey on In Living Color with the definitive Vanilla Ice parody …

Now if only they’d find Kelly Coffield’s Paula Abdul impression.

Launch vs. Last

I’m a longtime Launch.com devotee. Just check out my station. Before I joined the iPod ranks a couple of years ago, Launch was the soundtrack of my workday. I discovered so much good music — Carbon Leaf, Rachael Yamagata, Stereophonics, Dubstar, newer Los Lobos, Blue Man Group, Hayseed Dixie, newer Dylan, Mary Lou Lord, newer Big Country, some Jonatha Brooke — and some Chris Rock and Steve Martin comedy bits.

I’ve listened less at work these days. My job is a little more social than it used to be, and for the moments I need to crank up the volume and ignore my co-workers’ incessant yammering on movies, I have the iPod.

So I’ve been thinking of cancelling my $3/month subscription to Launch — you can use it for free, but I pay to get it without ads. Mrs. MMM and I are fanatical about keeping subscription costs low. Many of our magazines are freebies, including the two I get for networking through MediaBistro. We do NOT get HBO, so don’t ask us about The Sopranos.

Yahoo! also isn’t doing much to develop the Launch service. I haven’t noticed a new feature in, oh, three years or so. They’re focused on developing Yahoo! Music, which puzzles me. (Pay $6/month to listen to music on my computer but not my iPod? Where do I sign up?!)

And I’ve noticed Last.fm widgets popping up everywhere. Curious, I checked it out with Wikipedia — the 2007 equivalent of asking a neighbor — and I was impressed with what I read.

I signed up for it, and … I’m not really impressed.

I’m using the free service, and it seems I have to pay $3/month just to bring it up to the level of Launch. And I’d still miss a few features such as song rankings. Yes, Last.fm has “love” and “ban,” but there’s nothing in between. Launch gives you a number ranking and sets your playlist according to your preferences. You can even set up a couple of different “stations,” some ignoring your rankings and some relying on them almost exclusively, though that may be a subscriber-only feature.

I’ve also found it’s a good way to check out a new album. When Carbon Leaf and Paul McCartney released albums in the past couple of years, I ranked the artist and the album 100, guaranteeing I’d hear a couple of songs in a couple of typical listening hours.

Last.fm seems a lot less interactive. Sure, you can share your preferences with others, but Launch also has that. (They’re called “influencers.”) I haven’t figured out how to do anything other than naming an artist and hearing similar artists. Even that’s a little sketchy — when I entered “Rolling Stones,” my playlist was stuck in the ’60s. What about the new Stones stuff?

So, Last.fm users, what do you like about it? What am I doing wrong? I’m sure I can grow to like it, but is it worth canceling Launch to rely on this instead?

And have you guys ever considered Launch?

The blah blah blah guide to Rush, Part VIII

(Why two in two days? I think my big story is done. Check Thursday’s paper.)

Roll the Bones
was a period of great upheaval — for me. I graduated from college and begged for scraps in the job market. I remember hearing Dreamline for the first time on WRDU as I drove around Durham, pondering my future and thrilled that this band with which I’d grown up was still growing, almost 20 years into their careers. (But still under 40 — the guys were born in ’52 and ’53.)

I found a job in Wilmington, NC, and I was able to drive to Columbia, SC, on March 5, 1992 (thanks, Cygnus X-1’s tour archive), to see Rush for the third time. I met my Athens buddy medic8r, and we sat up in the nosebleed to see bass players’ nirvana — Rush and Primus.

But I had a feeling Rush had hit a rut in the synthesizer phase. And that’s why I was thrilled when I raced out to the record store, took this one back to my tiny apartment and heard …

Counterparts (1993)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia | Lyrics/etc.)

As I’ve been hinting, this is my favorite post-Moving Pictures album. Not because it’s the most consistent — I nearly reconsidered after listening today and remembering that Alien Shore, The Speed of Love and Everyday Glory were forgettable tracks. The other eight songs, though, are a few confident steps in a bold new direction. They were dialing down the synths and putting the “power” in “power trio.”

It starts with a garage rock-style countoff. “One, two, three, four, one, two … rat-tat … rat-ta-ta-ta.” Then we’re off into an unusually funky Neil Peart backbeat, soon followed by Geddy Lee’s galloping bass and Alex Lifeson’s scrambled arpeggios. This is Animate, upholding the tradition of powerful leadoff songs while establishing the new style and the theme for this album.

Peart is in dangerous territory here. Some of his takes on love and relationships sound exactly like you’d expect a sci-fi geek’s love songs to sound. (Fun from high school: We were allowed to send fake valentine-grams at an assembly, essentially pairing off any boy and girl to kiss after reading a short note. That’s how I ended up kissing the homecoming queen after hearing a message claiming I’d love her longer than the vibrations of a cesium atom.)

But while Alien Shore and The Speed of Love are as overly analytical as Emotion Detector, Peart fares better with Animate and two more explorations of what love is. (Didn’t you know he was answering Foreigner’s question?) Double Agent is two dualities in one, going inside the conflicted mind of a man in a conflicted relationship, with an effective spoken-word section reminiscent of Vincent Price on Thriller. Peart delves into cynicism with Cold Fire, a tough look at the demands of passion with some of his best metaphors — “the flame at the heart of a pawn broker’s diamond is a cold fire.”

Peart also goes abstract with longtime lyrical collaborator Pye Dubois on Between Sun and Moon, built on a strong Lifeson riff. He revisits his theme of perseverance on Stick It Out, hints at AIDS empathy on Nobody’s Hero and pokes fun at his own quest for knowledge in Cut to the Chase.

The guys also churned out a playful and tuneful instrumental, Leave That Thing Alone.

Perhaps it’s all a happy coincidence. Peart delivers his most focused lyrics just as Lifeson and Lee crank the guitars to 11 with help from prodigal producer Peter Collins. Under the newish Soundscan chart rankings, this one hit #2 (though Atlantic and the RIAA disagree over its platinum status, Wikipedia says.) It’s a powerful move and a promising start down a new path.

But every path has some detours …

Test for Echo (1996)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia | Lyrics/etc.)

To be fair, I was a little distracted when this album was released. I had just untangled myself from a failing relationship, and I started dating the wonderful woman who is now sitting beside me while our two kids sleep (we hope). I was just starting to work on the Web. This was also Rush’s longest period between albums to date — almost three years, spent in part on Lifeson’s odd solo project Victor. (Anyone ever hear the song of Lifeson screaming at his yammering wife to shut up? It’s one of rock’s great obscure oddities.)

So perhaps if I’d ever sat down with this one the way I did with all my old Rush albums, these songs would’ve made more of an impression in my head. As it stands, I had to go through iTunes and play the 30-second samples just to refresh my memory on half these songs. (My CD is glitched somehow, though it could be the laptop’s CD player — the weak spot in the Sony Vaio.)

The titletrack, also the opener, is some sort of commentary on media overload that has a few good riffs but plods through the verses.

The highlight is Driven, a duel of frantic guitar and bass riffs that seem to careen “on the edge of control,” as Peart’s lyrics say. Resist is a surprising change of pace with Peart on hammered dulcimer. The Color of Right is bright.

Driven and Resist, the latter often reconstituted as an acoustic duet giving Peart a chance to rest after his drum solo, stuck around in live shows for a while. Nothing else had much of an impact.

This would’ve been a terrible way for Rush to end its career. It almost came to that.

But first … we’ve had four studio albums since the last live album, so …

Different Stages (1998)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia | Review/etc.)

A couple of things were different this time. This wasn’t just a snapshot of Rush’s most recent tour. They took a trip in the wayback machine for a 1978 concert from London. The result is a neat sampling of Rush music from all eras, a small box set of sorts.

This might have been a decent way to wrap Rush’s career. And it came just as Rush’s future was in grave doubt.

Shortly after the Test for Echo tour ended, Neil Peart’s daughter — his only child — was killed in an auto accident. Within a year, his wife died. She had cancer, but Peart described it as “suicide by apathy” from a broken-hearted mother.

Peart retreated from the world for a while. Various labels produced various Rush retrospectives. Lee recruited occasional collaborator Ben Mink and grunge-rock drummer Matt Cameron for a solo album. And everyone waited … and waited …

The "intelligence is relative, anyway" guide to Rush, Part VII

Farewell to Mercury/Polygram, hello Atlantic (coincidentally the new home of former manager Val Azzoli). Farewell to producers named “Broon” or “Peter,” hello Rupert “love that Fixx sound” Hine.

Everything else stayed pretty much the same. The synths were prominent but not overpowering, the band dabbled in a few styles (even an infamous lapse into rap), the songs were generally a consistent 4-5 minutes, the albums came out every 24 months or so, and Rush kept its core audience without substantial gains or losses.

Presto (1989)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia | Lyrics/etc.)

This one doesn’t introduce itself well. First, just look at that album cover. The rabbits suggest something sly and tricky. The gray tone suggests either something darker or a mistake in photo editing.

Then there’s the opener, Show Don’t Tell, which is really a mess. Good guitar riff and some rhythmic change-ups, followed by some meandering verses and choruses propping up one of Neil Peart’s weakest lyrical offerings to date.

Chain Lightning is a solid piece of ear candy, but it doesn’t suggest that the album is going to vie for the title of best post-Moving Pictures Rush album.

But then comes The Pass. A breathtaking one-way conversation with someone on the brink of self-destruction, it’s one of the band’s greatest artistic triumphs. Peart masterfully paints the portrait, from the “proud swagger out of the schoolyard” to the “trembling on a rocky ledge, staring down into a heartless sea, done with life on a razor’s edge.” Geddy Lee’s maturing voice pleads with the young anti-hero — “All of us get lost in the darkness / Dreamers learn to steer by the stars.” The song builds to a crescendo over a few piano chords, then abruptly cuts out the accompaniment as Lee sings the last words.

Wikipedia rounds up quotes suggesting this is one of the band’s favorites. It’s not a jock-rock fave like Tom Sawyer or a cheerful singalong like Closer to the Heart, but it’s the most moving track in the Rush catalog.

The rest of the album is consistently interesting. The weakest songs are the titletrack and Anagram (for Mongo), but on the latter, you have to give Peart credit for the effort of creating a song out of anagrams and a Blazing Saddles reference.

Some of the highlights: Scars is a showcase for Peart’s studies of African rhythms, with a galloping bass and world-music guitar riffing to match. Hand Over Fist is a clever retelling of rock, paper, scissors that captures the dual moods of calm and anger. Available Light starts slowly but builds beautifully to give new life to the familiar Peart theme (see Time Stand Still) of wanting to stop the world and soak in every echo of a beautiful time or place.

AllMusic gives this one 4.5 stars, the highest of any post-Signals album. It’s my second favorite of this era (we’ll get to #1, maybe later this week).

Roll the Bones (1991)
(AllMusic | Wikipedia | Lyrics/etc.)

The anti-Presto, starting brightly and dropping in quality a la Hold Your Fire.

Dreamline is a prototypical Rush opener — a surging guitar rocker on a familiar Peart theme (the power of dreams to rise above mediocrity) that opened live shows for years to come. Bravado, full of yearning and a tinge of regret at a slower tempo than most Rush songs, defiantly claims that the dreams are worth it even if we fail to achieve them. (The retelling of the Icarus tale — “if we burn our wings, flying too close to the sun” — is a little more subdued than Iron Maiden’s version.)

Then … oh dear.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s Rush … rapping on the titletrack. It’s not a terrible song — urging us to live our lives without fear of fateful things we can’t control — but it’s hard not to hear that middle section and cringe.

The rest of this one is only intermittently intriguing. Heresy is a bitter but well-told remembrance of the just-ended Cold War and “all those wasted years” (and wasted lives). Everything else — including the return to instrumental rock with Where’s My Thing? — does little to keep your attention.

Seems strange that this one returned Rush to platinum status, but Dreamline was such a strong track that it likely lured a lot of record-buyers.

Next up: An abrupt change of direction, Rush’s best album since Moving Pictures, and the album that could easily have been their last.