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Musical Maunderings in Sunni's Salon

July/August 2008

“Now it’s come to this ...” Way back, when this place was barely a gleam in my mind’s eye, I knew music would be an important part of my ramblings. Music is just too important a part of my life to not share my love for it—plus, it can be an excellent way to spread pro-individual, anti-authoritarian, and pro-freedom ideas. But one grave concern kept me from full-out enthusiasm in the beginning. I have been a hardcore Rush fan for many years; and knowing that not everyone shares that passion, I was concerned that I would feature them more often than almost everyone else would tolerate. Thus, I’ve probably swung too far in the other direction, barely mentioning Rush so far. Well, that’s about to change, so consider yourself warned. If need be, you can skip ahead to the other reviews in this issue.

I’ve been listening to Snakes & Arrows a lot since I bought the CD last year. For me, it’s an excellent blend of the old and the new—older, hard-rocking elements of Rush combined with new textures and combinations. From the opening punch of the first song, Far Cry, with Geddy’s bass jauntily jamming in the higher registers and the first line—“Pariah dogs and wandering madmen, barking at strangers and speaking in tongues”—it’s clear Rush is forging its own path still. That alone is one of the reasons I value this band so highly. Through all their many years of making music (according to their allmusic entry, they formed in 1968 and released their first full album in 1974), the focus of Lee, Lifeson, and Peart has been to create music that engages them. While some releases have struck closer to my heart than others, there is none—and I have them all, with the exception of a few recent compilations—that is totally devoid of value to me.

None of this should be taken to mean that I am an uncritical fan. Far from it—and there are places where Snakes & Arrows misses the mark for me. For example, some of Peart’s lyrics, most notably in Spindrift and The Way the Wind Blows, seem rather simplistic in structure, particularly in comparison to others who’ve handled the same subject matter—Chuck Brodsky comes to mind. Good News First seems to jab at Ayn Rand (“What happened to your old benevolent universe?”), but it is lyrically so confusing to me that I’m unsure what it’s addressing.

That said, there are many more hits than misses here. It is a pure pleasure that I can enjoy all the disc—unlike its predecessor, Vapor Trails, which was engineered so poorly it brings on a headache if I try to listen to it all in one sitting. Geddy’s bass work really shines in many songs, sometimes in the pure funkiness he brings to a line, other times in the bass carrying a higher line than is typical—almost as if he’s lead guitar. Geddy’s voice has mellowed substantially over the years, and while he can still hit the high notes, his 2112 days are gone (as the concert tour demonstrates). I liked his range and sometimes operatic style back then, but I like the greater versatility displayed now even more—especially in using his voice as another instrument in some very nice background vocals that help establish a song’s tone. Similarly, although Alex’s scorching guitar licks are largely absent on Snakes & Arrows, to my ear he owns this album precisely because his touch is much more deft and nuanced. He ranges from dark and grungy to soaring and hopeful, and beyond into classical blues riffs; and all of it is beautiful to behold. Altogether, it sounds like the power trio had a lot of fun making these songs, and created a lot of powerful music in the process.

Favorites are hard to tag, because many of the songs deeply speak to me. Faithless, which I heard for the first time live at a concert last fall, moved me to tears that night and still does every time I hear it. Hope, Alex’s solo instrumental song, is a creation of pure beauty. The Larger Bowl may seem overly redundant lyrically unless one recognizes the pantoum form; it’s a thoughtful perspective on the world with a lovely, clean guitar line from Alex. Bravest Face and We Hold On exemplify the positive, individualistic perspective Rush has become known for; and their short instrumental Malignant Narcissism is not only a totally fun, funky jam, it contains an amusing Team America nod, from which the song got its title.

Snakes & Arrows is, thematically, a balanced and mature examination of today’s world. One may hear the songs and find negativism or despair; or one can find perceptive, realistic observations tinged with hope. Where one might see contradictions between these lyrics:

We can only grow the way the wind blows
On a bare and weathered shore
We can only bow to the here and now
In our elemental war
(from The Way the Wind Blows)
and these:
Like a stone in the river
Against the floods of spring
I will quietly resist

Like the willows in the wind
Or the cliffs along the ocean
I will quietly resist
(from Faithless)
I do not. To me, they represent the interplay of genes and societal context in which a person is raised with individual choice. Or, as Neil expresses in Workin’ Them Angels—the song retrospective of his life: “Driving down the razor’s edge between the past and the future/Turn up the music and smile”. It’s hard to say if Rush will create more of their singular music—but if it turns out that they don’t, I can be well satisfied with Snakes & Arrows as a fitting cap to a glorious run.

Looking back at my younger days, I am just now starting to recognize some of the musical genius that went unappreciated primarily because I couldn’t afford to buy a lot of albums. The best example, and one that has been getting a lot of play over the past several months, has been 10cc’s audacious The Original Soundtrack. If you, like me, believed the hit I’m Not In Love was representative of the 1975 album’s sound, prepare to be blown away. From the opening of the first song, an operatic exploration titled Une Nuit à Paris all the way to the closing strains of The Film of My Love [the link above takes one to a remastered import with two bonus tracks; this one may or may not take one to original versions], the music twists its way through all kinds of styles, yet strikes gold more often than not.

For me, this release is a wonderful example of pop music done very well—although it might be a little too artsy or progressive for some pop fans. Sarcastic, bombastic, and perhaps sacrilegious (The Second Sitting For the Last Supper), 10cc may have been a little too clever for their own good with this album—at least for getting American radio airplay back then. If one can set aside the expectation borne of modern music’s straitjacket keeping atists in their “signature” sound, one will find a wealth of well-crafted pop here, with delicious hooks, fills, and smart, sometimes funny lyrics.

I still find the ethereal, subdued tone of I’m Not In Love engrossing, but it is far from the best cut on The Original Soundtrack. I adore the brash exuberance of Life is a Minestrone, as well as the more contemplative Brand New Day, and The Film of My Love. To me, it’s all a good time!

Those who know me well know I don’t care much for dance or techno music. While I enjoy a good thrumming bass line, I also like to hear the stuff that’s above it—and I like it to be not mind-numbingly repetitive. When I discovered that I enjoy Moby, I thought that would be that: but now I find I’m hooked on Covenant’s 2006 release, Skyshaper. It probably helped that I was introduced to the Swedish band by the moody, driving tune Spindrift. It’s suffused with melody and lyrics that inspire a lot of visual imagery. I expected it would be hard to top, and I was right—but the other songs are diverse enough to be equally engaging for the most part. Imagine my further surprise to find myself really enjoying the sparse, synth sound of Happy Man, after griping some time ago about keyboard music. I won’t make this already very long feature even longer trying to explain it here, but I will say that part of it is passion in the music. Part of what enchants me about the song is that it reminds me of my dear musician friend “Uncle Warren”. Other tunes that really get me grooving are Ritual Noise, Greater Than the Sun, Brave New World, and The World is Growing Loud. Skyshaper also includes a bonus disc that includes material that is more what I expected of electronica, containing but three songs, one of which is a mind-numbing 42 minutes long. I gave it three chances; and now I stick solely to the primary disc. I also intend to buy more of Covenant’s music to further explore their sound. Who’da thunk that possible?

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