Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"The Pass" / Rush / Presto

Sorry, haters, it's another Rush song.

I'm a person that believes in what some call synchronicity, or "meaningful coincidence". I was checking a Rush news blog which I frequent every couple weeks, and noticed that Sunday was the 20th anniversary of Rush's Presto album. There is a poll attached to the post asking everyone's favorite song on the album, and I thought, "No, brainier, it's The Pass", which turned out to be true. Then I go to itunes for the blog, and guess what song pops up? Pretty strange.

"The Pass" is a song which has only grown in prestige over the years among Rush fans (Russians? Is there a clever name for Rush fans like Dead fans or Jimmy Buffett? Besides loser, I mean) and the band too. They have singled out this song over the years as one of their personal favorites and often trot it out during tours.

This song joins a long line of a great band trope: the anti-suicide song. Though, as we see later, the object of the narrator's pleadings doesn't listen.

Neil Peart is at his lyrical best in this one. We meet the protagonist in the first two verses:

Proud swagger out of the school yard
Waiting for the world's applause
Rebel without a conscience
Martyr without a cause

Static on your frequency
Electrical storm in your veins
Raging at unreachable glory
Straining at invisible chains

One gets the sense of a angry young man, filled with potential and brimming with energy and misdirected anger ("Rebel without a conscience / Martyr without a cause")

But for whatever reason, he's met with frustration, as Peart sets up a metaphor of a dangerous cliff in the chorus. Or perhaps it's no metaphor and our kid is, literally, standing on a ledge. Probably both.

And now you're trembling on a rocky ledge
Staring down into a heartless sea
Can't face life on a razor's edge
Nothing's what you thought it would be

Now, our narrator gives his advice in the second half of the chorus. It's interesting, too how this song has two distinct choruses back to back. Not something you see often
All of us get lost in the darkness
Dreamers learn to steer by the stars
All of us do time in the gutter
Dreamers turn to look at the cars
Turn around and turn around and turn around
Turn around and walk the razor's edge
Don't turn your back
And slam the door on me

Beautifully said, indeed. "Everybody hurts, sometimes" as a famous Athenian once said in his own fashion. I also like how the music "slams" along with the lyric leaving Ged's voice alone to end the line.

Now, more advice:

It's not as if this barricade
Blocks the only road
It's not as if you're all alone
In wanting to explode

Someone set a bad example
Made surrender seem all right
The act of a noble warrior
Who lost the will to fight

And back to the double choruses.

After one of Alex's best solos on record, we get the tragic ending:

No hero in your tragedy
No daring in your escape
No salutes for your surrender
Nothing noble in your fate
Christ, what have you done?

I love what Neil does here, totally pissing over any kind of romanticism, bravery or sacrifice that some might associate with suicide. "No salutes for your surrender"is a hell of a line, no matter your feelings on this band. Again, like the "slam" lyric at the end of the chorus, the music stops on "Christ" to really convey the shock and incredulous feeling of what's happened.

Once more with the chorus, to really get the point across, I suppose, and we end strangely for a Rush song, with Geddy singing alone.

Looking back, I've really focused on the lyrics here, but there is some great musicianship going on here as well. I've already mentioned Lifeson's incredible, restrained solo, but the opening to this song with Geddy's plucked bass riff is very distinctive in the Rush canon. The big intro to the chorus is a classic as well (check :49 on the video), and this is the first album when Geddy really started to restrain his glass shattering screech (one of the main things that people hate about this band) which he does to fine effect here.

So, why have the fates given me this song, what's the synchronicity? Fear not for me, dear reader, but stay alert to those around you, eh?

Also, does Geddy's late 80's ponytailed look make him even less attractive? I don't think it was possible, myself. How about Alex's mullet?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"The Next Messiah" / Jenny Lewis / Acid Tongue

OK, first off I'm just going to go ahead and state the obvious - Jenny Lewis is HOT. It's far from the sum total of why I love her and her music, but damn if she just isn't one smoking lady. In fact, she's most definitely in my list of five (the others? Well, that would be Mad Men actress January Jones, pop siren Mandy Moore - (and Ryan Adams, Mandy? Really?)Natalie Morales, NBC news-temptress, and Natalie Dormer, the doomed Anne Boelyn from Showtime's The Tudors. Just in case you were wondering.)

Huge, completely gratuitous photo

Again, though, all that aside, Lewis is an awesomely talented singer and songwriter, with a voice almost as pure and beautiful as Neko Case. Lewis is also the lead singer of indie rock band Rilo Kiley, one of my very favorites of the 2000s. Though Rilo Kiley put out a new album a couple of years ago, they are currently on hiatus as Lewis explores her solo career.

Her first album was the countryish Rabbit Fur Coat, which had a nice hit with the sublime "Rise Up With Fists" and an awesome Hee-Haw tribute for its video

Jenny Lewis - Rise Up with Fists - The funniest home videos are here

As great as that album is for Sunday morning lounging, I actually prefer Acid Tongue more (and I'm probably in the minority there). I like the wide variety of styles she uses in that one; it's more dynamic and has a few rock songs on it too, one of which is this one - "The Next Messiah"

When this came out, I remember reading an interview with Lewis in which she said this song was meant to invoke the multi-part, narrative songs that she grew up listening to as a kid in the 70's. It does tell a story, though I'm at a loss to figure the damn thing out. If you'd like to give it a go, have at it. And, indeed, there are three distinct parts to this eight minute opus.

Part one is a straight ahead boogie beat, with Lewis' voice taking front and center. Part two begins at 2:48 with a funky breakdown and backbeat. Part three at 5:11 (after a cool false ending)has Lewis trading off lines with a male vocalist over a soft strumming guitar. This part has my favorite bit of this song, the "Ohh-ohh" she sings in a blues key at 6:35, 6:49 and 7:31. Unexpected and sexy. The last minute of the song (at 7:51) circles back to the boogie beat, making the listener feel effectively like he's gone somewhere.

I've seen Lewis perform twice now, once in 2005 with Rilo Kiley and this past summer, both times at the 40 Watt. Last summer's show was supposed to go be at the Georgia Theatre, but the week before the show it burned to the ground. Embarrassingly, the first thought I had when I heard it was on fire was, "Crap, does this mean I don't get to see Jenny Lewis?"

Thank goodness the show went on as the 40 Watt generously hosted her, and my wife and I ended up going and getting a hell of a treat. In fact, she opened with "The Next Messiah", which I thought was a song she would just choose to skip live, as I thought it wouldn't translate well. She killed it. You can't imagine how small the Watt felt when she belted out, "He's the neeeeeeext moo-si-uhhhhh" at the top of her lungs at the end of that song.

I apologize for not having an album version, but it seems her record company has a huge copyrighted stick up its butt. The times I posted above are for the album version, but you should get the idea.

Monday, November 2, 2009

"Obscene" / The Rollins Band / The End of Silence

The End of Silence was released in 1992, and came by me via the “Low Self-Opinion” song and video at a perfect time for me in 1993.

I was familiar with Rollins from my high school skater punk-guy days, but The Rollins Band was another animal altogether. Gone were the breakneck, manic, sarcastic songs like “Slip it In” and “Six Pack”, and in their place were long, eight minute pulverizing, angry dirges based firmly in the blues. To say it took some getting used to was an understatement.

Anyway, this album was essential to me during a bad breakup I had back in my early 20’s. I guess girls fancy a good love song and a cry during a breakup (stereotypically, of course), but The End of Silence contained the perfect mix of self-pity, searing anger, resentment, and resolve that made it an absolute essential part of my life for about six months of 1994.

And then, strangely enough, during a trip to New York City, I got the chance to meet Rollins. Well, “meet” is being generous. I was up there with a buddy visiting his girlfriend, and a few of us were walking around the city, when I notice I’m behind a squat, jacked-up dude that seemed strangely familiar. That’s when I also notice the unmistakable Black Flag insignia tattoo on the back of the guy’s neck.

Without even considering what I was doing, I blurt out, “Hey, Henry”.

He and the girl he’s with turn around and he looks me in the eye and raises an eyebrow – “Yeah?”

Then, panicking, I hold out my hand to shake and say, I swear, “I think you’re pretty cool”

He was nice enough to return my shake, tell me thanks, and not punch me in my face. So, there’s my exciting brush with superstardom.

About a year after that, some of my friends and I went to see Rollins at The Cotton Club in Atlanta (opening act was a noisy, unknown band called Tool). Now, that was a weird performance. I’m sure everyone has seen clips of Rollins in full-on, possessed performance mode. He’s usually naked but for a pair of black briefs, hunched over and screaming his lungs out into a mic. We expected all this, of course, but the strangeness happened in between songs.

This. Yikes

He would put the mic back on the stand, stand erect, start genuinely smiling, and crack jokes with the audience (probably this was about the time he really started considering spoken word as his major career move). There was lots of nervous laughter from the audience, and then, sometimes, just complete, uncomfortable silence. Rollins even noticed this at one point, and commented how everyone seemed scared to speak (to which I answered in my head like everyone else, “No fucking shit, dude”). Then his face would screw up, the band would kick in, and there he’d be, staking the stage again. It was a very strange show indeed.

The years (and his spoken word stuff, and his talk show) have of course shown us that Rollins has either chilled out a good bit or was really a big-hearted person underneath his muscle bound, Hulkish exterior. He’s a very intelligent dude, a good writer and poet, and very thoughtful on a wide variety of subjects. I think The Rollins Band helped him grow as a person, actually, providing him a therapeutic outlet for some of his issues.

“Obscene” is one of the longest songs on this album, clocking in at 8:40, though much of that is taken up by a chaotic, instrumental freak-out at the end. The song really begins with some drum and bass fireworks, with the bass player running some awesome scale work underneath the guitar noodling.

The band locks into a nice riff which drives the song, and Rollins starts the vocals at :33 with, guess what, a guttural scream. He’s confused and angry – go figure. My favorite part of the song is what passes for its chorus – check 1:04, when the band hits HARD on eighth notes with pauses in between – “Bam bam – bam bam – bam bam – bam” while Rollins, raving, yells – “I’ll love you and hate you both at the same time – Heal you and hurt you and laugh as you cry!” Very effective stuff. (He does again at 1:42, just in case you don’t know what I mean)

After the second chorus, we have a great bluesy jam, followed by the song grinding to a halt at 3:00. For the next minute and a half, Rollins quietly sings over a barely audible bass until he explodes again at 4:30 (and we get one more chorus at 5:02). From that point until the end of the song, it’s just the aforementioned instrumental freak out, fading away to nothing. It’s pretty cool to see live though.

Looking back now, it does seem a little bit juvenile to dig this, but I still do, though I can’t really relate to the man’s anger (and to be fair, he’d probably say the same, twenty years on). It’s not particularly skillfully written or performed, but really The Rollins Band is much better than the sum of its parts. Anything that serves as an catharsis or outlet for Rollins’ anger and aggression is probably good for the world in the end.