Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Every Song on Every Rush Album Worth Listening to, Blurbed


2112

  • 2112 – Huh. This is only the second time I've listened to this song. Last time, the first time, I thought it was hella soft and non-rocking. This rocks adequately and is a fine accompaniment to doing a lot of dishes. Think they got the horns and some of the chords from Quadrophenia.
  • A Passage to Bangkok – Why did bands in the 70s/80s think that mentioning "the Orient" merited the "Oriental" note sequence?
  • The Twilight Zone – Wait. Is this actually about The Twilight Zone? Neat. Man, tho: even the rockers on this album have a lot of acoustic guitar
  • Tears – Everybody gets a ballad, I guess.
  • Something for Nothing – This rocks a lot. I suspect if I listened to the words, I'd get kinda frustrated, tho.

Fly by Night
  • Anthem – Front and center in the "fuck Rush; this guy is an Ayn Rand douche", this song actually rocks pretty hard, and the words are eminently easy to ignore. Goes on a little long, tho.
  • Best I Can – Excellent example of the 70s tendency for working-class aspiration-rock anthems. Something for the 17-year-old to yell along to!
  • Beneath, Between & Behind – Third straight example of killer Alex Lifeson riffage. At this point, you could be excused for thinking the band was actually centered around him. Restless drums and Neil Peart's least subtle cymbal work ever. Maybe the first Rush tune to feature a real breakdown part.
  • By-Tor and the Snow Dog – Impossibly diluted Hobbit shit song; lengthy guitar-noise freakout depicting a swordfight; maybe my favorite Rush song of all time. Totally fun stop/start technical part around four and a half minutes in. Had listened to it a dozen times before realizing that Prince By-Tor, who loses the fight to the Snow Dog, was actually the bad guy, as I'd assumed a guy who was a "Prince" had to be the good guy. In retrospect, probably the beginning of my class consciousness.
  • Fly by Night – If you've ever cried on a Greyhound, this song is meaningful to you.
  • Making Memories – Well, they can't all be winners.
  • Rivendell – Neil: put down the Tolkein. Alex: for fuck's sake, man: your guitars should be electric, not acoustic.
  • In the End – Somewhat self-conscious attempt to write another anthem forgets that the riff in an anthem should sound better when you play it on the electric than when you did on the acoustic. (Also forgets that the main riff sounded better in the title track than it does here.)

A Farewell to Kings

  • A Farewell to Kings – How many parts does a song need, anyway? Yeesh. More good chiming/ringing chords from Alex, but we're only three albums in and Geddy's shrillness and the overall treble levels here are starting to make me anxious.
  • Xanadu – Some synth curls and textures and long parts with no singing soothe. A great example of the tradition of classic heavy rock songs about things they make you read in high school English (see also: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, One).
  • Closer to the Heart – One of the big radio staples of my wasted adolescent bus rides and insomnia sessions, and also maybe the best counterexample to the argument that all Rush lyrics are scary will-to-power fantasies: "mold a new reality / closer to the heart" makes everybody feel better! I had the tabulature for the solo in this one, and spent dozens of hours trying to reproduce it on an acoustic guitar, with ... limited success.
  • Cinderella Man – Not sure I've ever heard this before. Maybe the most Rush-song Rush song ever. Lot of complicated stereo panning reminding me of the iron rule of classic rock: the more time a producer spends changing up stereo effects during a song, the more forgettable the song is.
  • Madrigal – Hobbit-ass English folk song inexplicably scored with mostly synths.
  • Cygnus X-1 – Rush: "What if we just did a ten-minute song that started with five minutes of instrumental evocations of a rocketship before we started singing?" Me: "Why start singing? That shit was excellent before."

Caress of Steel

  • Bastille Day – Whoa, extra-thick guitar tones! Like mediocre BBQ sauce, or one guy trying to sound like both guys in the MC5 at the same time. I have a depressing feeling this one might be Rush's "punk" album. Song is pretty tuff, tho.
  • I Think I'm Going Bald – Novelty song. K. Apparently Rush wanted to go for a heavy boogie kind of thing. It actually goes a little better than you'd think.
  • Lakeside Park – Okay, there's definitely something going on with this record: this is a vaguely dancey song, the third distinct rock style in three songs. Can imagine roller-skating to this mid-tempo rock-ballad, with the disco ball flashing sparkles of light everywhere.
  • The Necromancer – Starting off with down-tuned mumbly voiceover, then it's impossible to pay attention until the Big Rock Moves start about four and a half minutes in, but, man. Am I really supposed to care about who's "gazing into his prisms" no matter how good Geddy Lee's Robert Plant impression has gotten? Anyway, at about the seven-minute mark, you get some primo Hawkwind stuff, if what you always wanted was "Hawkwind, but more disciplined". Only lasts about a minute and a half, tho. (And at nine and a half in, we get a full-on Sweet Jane rip that takes us on home. Can somebody get me a cab the hell out of here?)
  • The Fountain of Lamneth – This is just under twenty minutes long and no matter how many parts there are in it, there is nothing in here for me.

Grace Under Pressure

  • Distant Early Warning – Here we go; this is pretty much the Rush I remember most clearly from early radio listening: atmospheric, keyboardy, melodic, frequently dull.
  • Afterimage – Is this a Big Country outtake? (Mechanical reggae riffs are not my especial favorite thing.)
  • Red Sector A – Cold War paranoia and electronic drums. Can't win 'em all.
  • The Enemy Within – More jittery Police worship Ice-T had it right, tho.
  • The Body Electric – The funk faked. (For a while, then back to the standard-issue cold pop-rock.)
  • Kid Gloves – Boy, all of these songs sound exactly the same. I will say Lifeson's solo is a welcome slash of interest here.
  • Red Lenses – Yet more identical tempos and textures. Yet more yelping vocals without much in the way of a hook or reason to pay attention.
  • Between the Wheels – Fun little fake-out at the beginning where it seems like this may be different than the rest of the record. Doesn't last long.

Hemispheres

  • Hemispheres – Now this is more like it. Back to actual dynamics, including speeding up and slowing down every so often. Not what I'd call memorable, but more immediately engaging.
  • Circumstances – "Hey, kids! Do you like Rush radio hits? Well, would you like a song that sounds like a radio hit with no hooks?"
  • The Trees – I gather the lyrics to this are somewhat notorious. I can't really make them out. Otherwise, it's a fun, playful, even goofy little rocker.
  • La Villa Strangiato – By now, I'm a little tired of the long-Rush-song-with-a-million-parts-and-changes trope. Especially because the band seems to have systematically confused "skittering hi-hat work" with "interesting" and "lots" with "good", but this is fine, expansive, second-tier Rush. Best of their bad songs? Worst of their good songs? Somewhere in there.

Hold Your Fire

  • Force Ten – Samples, synth washes, electro-drums, Geddy again exploring funk bass moves: we are very officially in the 80s, friends. For Rush, though, this song is fast, and it's hard and it's so focused it actually feels mean and Alex is soloing and filling his face off, even if he's mixed so far in the background you can't actually hear it.
  • Time Stand Still – Up-tempo ballad with R.E.M. guitar and Aimee Mann vocal hooks? I have to say, Rush getting over the Police and moving on to other bands did wonders for them.
  • Open Secrets – By now, Rush can mesh their desires to play with textures without forgetting to have dynamic songs. Doesn't make all of those songs interesting, but it does keep them varied.
  • Second Nature – Little post-Talking-Heads drumming squiggles in here, and Geddy just might be humping a fretless bass, but everything except the vocal line sounds like they forgot to finish writing the song.
  • Prime Mover – I think this song forgot to happen?
  • Lock and Key – More parts piled up where a coherent whole usually goes.
  • Hold Your Fire – A little forgettable, but here, all the parts actually fit together, and all the weird variety makes for an intriguing whole instead of a mish-mash. Also by now the consistently amiable lyrical musings on topics like "people can be kinda mean and they should knock it off" and "I like art, it makes me feel better sometimes" has really grown on me.
  • Turn the Page – Again with the funk moves -- not really this band's strength, but this is probably the catchiest chorus on the record, if you're into the whole "enjoyable melody" thing. Some unforgivable synth fills towards the end, though, and at 5 minutes, this is about 2 minutes longer than anybody wants
  • Tai Shan – Synth approximations of bamboo flute. No.
  • High Water – Another solid album cut, with lots of experimento-drum, fun pushing-ahead parts, restful hanging-in-place parts...not bad. Not a lot of ideas here, but good execution.

Moving Pictures

  • Tom Sawyer – As a baby metalhead, in a huge jean jacket and mullet, headphones on and headbanging on the bus, I met a lot of older men who wanted to talk to me. They all seemed to work in restaurants. They all seemed to love Rush in general and this song in particular. It's a good song.
  • Red Barchetta – A really really boring song except for the breakdown bridge bits, which stomp all over the place. (Car songs always suck.)
  • YYZ – Vaguely fusiony technical beatdown? No vocals? Sense of humor about the whole thing (song is named after and music is based on the Morse Code name for the Toronto airport)? Yes please! This is almost certainly by any objective measure the best Rush song qua Rush song; nobody ever needs to hear it more than once, is the only problem.
  • Limelight – A lot of rock stars write self-pitying songs about being rock stars. This might be the least bad self-pitying song about being a rock star. And it is at least a fun thing to listen to, with stop-start bits, some really squinty guitar sounds, and just enough faux-Shakespearean language to fire up the base.
  • The Camera Eye – Squelchy-good synth moves open this up, and it's hard to imagine being much more into it. It's never quite as good as that again, but this is like being on a train: moving fast and in somebody else's control the whole time.
  • Witch Hunt – Sometimes after you dunk a basketball, you fall down getting back on defense.
  • Vital Signs – Semi-reggae here sending bad, bad signals for the future.

Permanent Waves

  • The Spirit of Radio – Great song, even with the cod-reggae breakdown and the sly "radio will play this because DJs will see themselves in it". Vocals are slightly too high in the mix. I'll always love this song for all the times my English punk friend would sing it drunkenly to me at the bar; the power of music is real, people.
  • Freewill – I have heard this song hundreds of times; I never, ever remember anything but the chorus. Which is too bad: the verse riff is extremely good, even when the vocal lines are just doubling it. I also like Lifeson's guitar solo, which uses his free will to spatter all over the place in a very messy way in an otherwise too-restrained tune.
  • Jacob's Ladder – I have nothing to say about this song.
  • Entre Nous – It's a degree of difficulty move to make your chorus the most challenging part of a song. That doesn't mean anybody has to like it. (I like it. A little.)
  • Different Strings – Filler.
  • Natural Science – Long, technical album-ender. Where have I heard this before? (And why this time is the cymbal sound so harsh and awful?)

Rush

  • Finding My Way – Except for Geddy's way-too-Robert-Planty "oooh yeah"s, this song rules.
  • Need Some Love – "I need it quick and I need it now" and my hand reaches out and turns the volume down.
  • Take a Friend – I'm a sucker for amiable tunes about friendship. This isn't great, but how can you be mad about it?
  • Here Again – Please go away. (We all have our own opinions about Rush, but my opinion is that "long blues songs" are not what I am here for.) (The solo is, howevs, tasty.) (If that's your kind of thing.)
  • What You're Doing – ...is listening to a slightly boogie-inflected Rush. How you feel about this is up to you.
  • In the Mood – "Well hey now baby" mutes song instantly. Seriously, if you want Rush to prove it can be as stupid and shitty as Kiss, this is your song. (Also "I Think I'm Going Bald".)
  • Before and After – Man, this is a really horny record.
  • Working Man – Minority opinion here, but I've never been sure this isn't the best Rush song. If nothing else, it proves that there's such a thing as exactly the right amount too slow. Beautiful. (It also proves that a sick breakdown is always appropriate, but you probably knew that.)

Power Windows

  • The Big Money – Airy synth chords (that you can barely tell from the heavily effected guitar); electronic drums; tricky technical parts under very generic synthy pop. Clearly, we are in the presence of the 80s. and, like so much 80s Rush, it feels like they forgot something: in this case, a vocal melody. The fade-out is, however, terrific.
  • Grand Designs – Tepid lyrical mashup of Spirit of Radio and Closer to the Heart in a song that otherwise reads as "we have a 32-track recorder and scraps left over from 45 songs, so we better put all the scraps together into one song".
  • Manhattan Project – About two and a half minutes in, there's an up-tempo part that is a lot of fun. It lasts about thirty seconds, and happens again about 3:45 in.
  • Marathon – It sure is.
  • Territories – Another six minutes of multiple parts standing in for having ideas, textures replacing dynamics, and pointless breaks thrown in because saying "No" is never the mark of good art.
  • Middletown Dreams – Almost enough hooks and energy to make an actual pop song!
  • Emotion Detector – Actual parts growing organically and meaningfully from one to the next! It lasts about a minute.
  • Mystic Rhythms – Yet more clashing clanging bullshit.

Signals

  • Subdivisions – I discovered this song about six months ago. It fairly reliably makes me tear up at my desk. It is proof that Rush can hit the pop mark when things work right, even with a million parts and everything else. (It's also proof that mixing the vocals a little lower and toning down the shrieking is a good move for the band, one that actually enhances the emotional urgency.)
  • The Analog Kid – Like Subdivisions without the transplendence.
  • Chemistry – Amiable pop-rocker with a neato guitar solo.
  • Digital Man – Like The Analog Kid with one or two more breakdowns.
  • The Weapon – This song is just fine!
  • New World Man – If you thought Tom Sawyer rocked too hard and needed to be toned down into a straight reggae-influenced pop song with some Closer to the Heart melodies, you were exactly correct. This is a classic Rush rehash, something like the band covering themselves, and it's essentially perfect.
  • Losing It – So shy I barely noticed it was there. Then it wasn't.
  • Countdown – What's a Rush album without a mini-epic? Not this Rush album, that's for sure.


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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

National Lampoon: Missing White House Tapes

When I was a young kid, like most young kids, I had a dad. And like most dads, he had a lot of things I wasn't allowed to touch: a stereo receiver; a turntable; a wooden orange crate of records; a reel-to-reel tape deck.

Obviously, most of my early memories of being left alone revolve around playing my dad's records.

For some reason, I gravitated to a couple covers.

And that's why, at somewhere in the neighborhood of 10, in 1984 in a shitty rented house in Kansas, I started wallowing in unbelievably weeded-out in-jokes about Nixon and Watergate. (A couple Doonesbury compilation paperbacks lying around the house helped me understand what the jokes were about, as did living in a fiercely pro-Geraldine-Ferraro house, in a fiercely pro-Reagan state in a virulently pro-Reagan country.) Mainly, of course, what allowed me to crack the code was listening to the records again and again, just burning them into my brain by the unsubtle magic of repetition.

And by so relentlessly placing myself into these bracing winds from the 70s, I think I grew a unique insight into our current situation, as terrifying and awful as it is, because this current situation is a tragedy, based closely on an earlier farce.

Which brings me back to the National Lampoon album, Missing White House Tapes. That's what I want to talk about right now: that farce (not the farce my parents endured, nor the tragedy we're preparing to weather now). In particular, I want to talk about Side Two. (Side One is ... interesting, but you have to smoke a LOT of weed to appreciate its highly abstract, formalized audio-collage work, and some of the references are absolutely incomprehensible unless you lived through the actual period. Some great dick jokes -- appropriate for trying to abuse Dick Nixon -- though.) So. Side Two. You can listen here (start at 17:22):

It's a masterpiece of the comedy album form: simulating the experience of half-idly flipping channels but always returning to the central show that's on, which is network TV coverage of the Impeachment Day Parade. Complete with stuffed shirt network weenies narrating the events, fatuously. Interludes include a wonderful Sesame Street parody pitting bumbling buffoon "Big Dick" and his greedy, ravenous friend The Shredder Monster as they try to explain the difference between 9 (original tapes) and 7 (turned over tapes), and between "lying" and "misspeaking yourself" and "falsehoods and inoperative statements" and "taking responsibility and taking the blame" and "withholding evidence and protecting the presidency". It's a wonderment that results in a chipper, chirpy public-television voice teaching the children to say "Shit. Shit! Big Dick! Is full! Of shit!"

A lesson that has resonated every day since 1984, and should reverberate more and more powerfully and awfully in the days to come.

Anyway, my goal here is not to liveblog my sixth listen to this album in the past four days. Merely to urge you and yours to listen to it, because it clearly lays out a sick, stunted, depressed best-case scenario for our immediate future.

I'll leave you with a quote from our network TV puppets, watching the floats go by in the Impeachment Day Parade:

WALLACE GLADSTONE: Barbara, I know for you, there were many moving moments, if you'll pardon the alliteration (chuckles). Perhaps you'd care to describe one or two of them to our viewers.
BARBARA MERKIN: Well, the strangling of the bald eagle was IT for me.
WALLACE: It was thrilling. Of course, the effigy-burning... And now, here's a contingent of our heroic POWs, many of whom spent years in prison in Hanoi courageously resisting the persistent efforts of their North Vietnamese captors to brainwash them into thinking that the United States is run by a tiny clique of criminals, dominated by powerful business interests, bankrolled by huge, monopolistic corporations, working hand in glove with the CIA in a campaign of intrigue at home and abroad.
BARBARA: Jesus, why did they bother?
WALLACE: Oh, I don't know, Barbara.
...
WALLACE: Well, that's about it for America's day of shame. The president has been officially impeached, and the eternal microphone has been switched on as the CIA brass band plays Wiretaps. But, Barbara, this is not only an historic moment, it's also a personal one. What has impeachment meant to the little people? The ordinary, simple people? You, for example, Barbara.
BARBARA: Well, Wallace, I just don't think the American people should in any way be ashamed of this tragic occurrence. Although a bunch of bleeding-heart do-gooders have used constitutional force to do away with our beloved president, this country is still founded on the age-old traditional values of bribery, violence, and assassination. And just because there are a few good apples in the barrel, doesn't mean that the vast majority aren't rotten through and through.
WALLACE: Okay, good thinking, Barbara.

Anyway, as we sink back into the 70s I think a lot about declaring certain statements inoperative, about tiny cliques of criminals, about strangling bald eagles at parades for Impeachment Day. I think about my dad's records, and talking to him in quotes from the dumb records we loved. I think about the last conversation I had with him, not long before he took his life. I think about the 70s, about where we were, about where we are, about the ways it's hard to tell the difference, and the ways it's easy. About the ways things are broken and the ways we might yet fix them. Some of them, anyway. And I miss my dad.

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