Okay, in the face of gale force winds of Rush-mania , I address the mighty threesome via The Spirit of Radio: Greatest Hits 1974-87 collection that came out last year.
I realize the very notion of singles and radio and Rush is anathema to devotees, but since I’m not one, it seems like a reasonable place to start. Besides being the purported “hits,” the collection also has the virtue of being in chronological order.
“Working Man” – A Sabbath-like metallic sludge-rocker, this has always been my favorite Rush song, not least because I used to be able to play it on the guitar and I love the mighty Gibson-and-Marshall roar (just guessing, never seen them live or looked into the matter) that guitarist Alex Lifeson – spitter of blood and defenestrator of cops - achieved on their very first album in 1974. The freakout solo is biting and cutting and rocks my melon. Bassist/singer Geddy Lee’s Keebler yelp must be addressed, but sounds kind of cool here.
“Fly By Night” – The title track from their second album – with a sweet rolling arpeggioed rhythm guitar foundation from Lifeson and a nice burbling bass line from Lee, it sounds almost pop-rock, and at just over 3-minutes was actually radio-friendly. Lee’s smurfiness becomes more pronounced, and Neil Peart joins on drums replacing John Rutsey, who didn’t like Ayn Rand and wasn’t very handsome.
“2112 Overture/The Temples of Syrinx” – Much portentious whooshing leading to stop/start unison band chording with busy fills from Peart and generalized overture-like bashing. Ooh, when we get to “The Temple of Syrinx” part, Lee, God love him, shrieks like he caught himself in his zipper, or something similar.
“Closer to the Heart” – very nice acoustic guitar strumming and a more relaxed Lee vocal on a notable melody, (well more relaxed until he gets to the high note of “heart,” but I don’t want to belabor this element of the band’s sound), before it goes electric. I kind of miss the metallic roar, though. Also, Lee’s bass, though intricate and musical, is in the prog-rock picked style of Yes or ELP and has that kind of tinny, trebly sound that says “this instrument isn’t only for booty-shaking thumpers, and who cares if our groupies wear glasses?”
“The Trees” – I am leary of the anthropomorphizing of trees, but there are interesting textures amidst the confabbing timber – something of a sameyness to the band’s sound after a while, however.
“The Spirit of Radio” – I love this one: the great, phased hammer-on and -off riff by Lifeson (notably sampled by St. Etienne, by the way), a palpable sense of outrage (and humor!) at the commercialism and shallowness of commercial radio, a FINE vocal on a terrific melody. Who else in a million years would have come up with the awkward prog bridge into the reggae(!) backing of the “salesman” segment of the song? Bizarre and great, and I actually enjoy Lee’s spirited “salesman!” squeal here. A real step forward, or backward, or somewhere, but I like it.
“Freewill” – virtues similar to “Radio,” and I dig the inspirational self-empowerment message – not born in “Lotus land” were these purposely-striding Canadians! Nice shredding Lifeson solo, too.
“Limelight” – okay, this one is good too, although the “all the world’s a stage” theme is a bit, um obvious. Hey, maybe I like this band. I like in this order: Lifeson’s guitar, the band’s melodic sense, their sense of experimentation, their interplay, Lee’s bass, his vocals, Peart’s drumming (very Carl Palmer), his lyrics. This is blasphemy, I know.
“Tom Sawyer” – More goodness from Moving Pictures: nice synth work by Lee to vary the sound, good tune, interesting phrasing in Lee’s vocal that almost has a sense of groove – watch out James Brown!
“Red Barchetta” – sort of nondescript song about someone’s uncle’s farm, the nobility of well-built equipment, and wind in the hair and stuff. Those shitload-of-drums fills are getting on my nerves. Ugh.
“New World Man” – Lee sings way down low like a big boy – I like it and the reggae-ish backbeat. Peart is cool when he plays like this. Who is this “new world man”?
“Subdivisions” – the “overture” sound returns, with almost a synth-pop feel as the divisions are subbed. Lee seems to like his new lower, yelp-free voice. Maybe the shots were kicking in. I hear something about “halls” and “malls” before a ringing, ethereal solo from Lifeson, who is their Barry Bonds.
“Distant Early Warning” – lots of synthy textures, and that early-’80s off-the-beat, phased and reverbed guitar sound you heard from the Police, the Fixx, or A Flock of Seagulls: new wave Rush – I had no idea! Not much of a melody to speak of, however. I’ll take “Message In a Bottle” or “Stand or Fall,” given my druthers.
“The Big Money” – Pretty standard proggy Rush, except for the bass – I actually heard it POP at one point – maybe it was an accident. No! he did it again. “Big money got no soul”: hard to argue with that, but what if the Big Money was gained through the practice of enlightened indvidualism? A conundrum.
“Force Ten” – good energy, variety of tonal colors, and vocal.
“Time Stand Still” – Aimee Mann on vocals? I guess they were really listening to new wave! Good tune, lovely high vocal from Mann and nice harmonization between she and Lee. I guess I missed this period of Rush – Hold Your Fire from ’87. Maybe I should pick that one up.
So that’s it. I know I have been entreated to check out later Rush – and ’87 WAS a long time ago – but this was an education, a few surprises, a fair amount of change and growth. I’m not sure what all the fuss is about, but they sure don’t suck either.