Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Rock Solid: Rush

"If you only own one album by Rush it's gotta be ____________________."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The AllMusic Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and Amazon.com offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
 two exceptions: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits) or live albums. In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

The wonderful and terrible thing about this Rock Solid method is way it subverts expectations.

If you had asked me before I looked at the numbers, I would have predicted the battle for Rush's best album would be between 1976's 2112 and 1981's Moving Pictures. I was close; those two were in the top three. I didn't predict the dark horse from 1980, Permanent Waves. It actually tied Moving Pictures for the highest combined rating and then won the tiebreaker, garnering a higher percentage of 5 star ratings from Amazon.com reviewers.

Since it was so close, this is a case where the reasoning takes on a special importance. Unfortunately Greg Prato's AllMusic review is more informational than evaluative. He says that Permanent Waves found Rush incorporating new wave elements while keeping their "hard rock roots intact," and points out that this got them their biggest hits to that point, Freewill and The Spirit of Radio. His only judgement comes in the final line: "Permanent Waves is an undisputed hard rock classic, but Rush would outdo themselves with their next release." Which, of course, was Moving Pictures.

So Prato makes no compelling case for Permanent Waves. In fact, he does the opposite. But what about the Amazon reviewers?

Indigo Larson feels that, in the unrealistic theoretical situation of a person being allowed to purchase only one album per artist, Permanent Waves should be your Rush selection. Samhot says it's a great introduction to the band: "This would be a perfect place to start for anyone interested in Rush. Features a nice balance of complex musicianship and accessibility that's hard to beat." Similarly, Bill R. Moore writes that Permanent Waves has "the best of both worlds" in terms of bridging early and later Rush.

This is a good start but then something starts to happen in the subsequent reviews, an avalanche of comparisons to Moving Pictures. You know the advertising adage that only the (perceived) inferior product has to mention its rival? Well that seems to be the case here. It would be okay if reviewers brought up the comparison to genuinely argue for Permanent Waves' superiority, but instead we get the following:

  • musicfan585: "Although I still believe Moving Pictures is the band's greatest album (and the best album ever made), Permanent Waves comes awfully close." [Yes, but what do musicfans 1 through 584 think?]
  • Huge Viking: "This is a great album for any Rush fan together with Moving Pictures I consider both as my personal favorites. These two albums alone could have easily been one album"
  • Tom Benton: "With Permanent Waves , Rush burst into the experimental '80s, showcasing a new sound and attracting more attention than ever before. It seems impossible that the band would reach higher heights than this - yet on their subsequent release, Moving Pictures, Rush did just that."
  • Andrew G. Fisher: "Permanent Waves is a preview to Moving Pictures."

Then we come to K. Parsons, who starts out definitively touting Permanent Waves as the best Rush album, and then
Natural Science is the second-to-last great Rush opus (along with The Camera Eye), and "Spirit of Radio" is just as wonderful a radio oriented song as Tom Sawyer....Oh, yeah, I nearly forgot - Rush doesn't get any more "Rush" than on Freewill - the fantastic solos, Randian lyrics, explosive drumming and again, Alex just soaring... reminds me of Red Barchetta a bit. Hmmm. Looks like I'll have to take TWO Rush CD's - this one and Moving Pictures after all. They really are quite inseparable."
If you lost the thread, Parsons compared a bunch of Permanent Waves songs to Moving Pictures songs and then realized how much he or she loves the latter record.

Obviously none of this convinced me that Permanent Waves deserves to be considered the best Rush release, though as always I bow to my methodology. And it is a great album, with the atheist mission statement of Freewill, the optimistic pessimism of The Spirit of Radio, the confessionally affecting Entre Nous, and the instrumental thrills of Natural Science. Wait, did I just talk myself into declaring it my favorite Rush record? No. Moving Pictures still gets the nod, with Roll the Bones (seriously) not far behind.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Rock Bottom: Rush

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with. 

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources, the All Music Guide (for the critical 
point-of-view) and Amazon.com (for the fan perspective). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not always agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect that. I'll also offer a considered alternative.  Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides, remix, or hits compilations, 2) live albums, and 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member.

* * *

This is why we have rules. By the numbers, Rush's 1974 self-titled debut is their lowest-rated album by both fans and critics. However, the band that recorded that album was comprised of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and John Rutsey. Soon after the album's release, Rutsey was sacked and Neil Peart joined, Since Peart is basically considered the best rock drummer of all time, and because he writes the lyrics, I'm resolute that he should be considered a vital member of Rush.

That leaves 1989's Presto as the album with the lowest combined rating.

What's interesting about this is that, as derided as the band's '80s embracing of synthesizers and electronic drums is among a large contingent of the band's fans, Presto is actually the album where they began going back a more organic and traditional power trio set-up. Gregory Heaney's AllMusic review hypothesizes that the band was "rusty" after their years of experimentation. He stresses that the album isn't bad, just lacking in both ambition and fun. (Heaney also advises   readers to listen to Rush's '70s work instead, which shows he paid very close attention in rock critic school.)

But how about the fans?

According to Amazon.com reviewers, partial blame falls on that nefarious gremlin, production. Tripmaster writes, "The production is so thin, treble, high, crisp, bright...Alex's guitar is ANYTHING BUT beefy, the snare sounds like a cap gun and THERE'S NO BALLS." Christopher Culver says that, "The drums have no punch, the sounds is flat with little variation in dynamic, and there's an incongruous edit in the second track." Lance says, "Presto sounds as if it was recorded in a tin can." The producer of the album was Rupert Hine, who brought experience in the pop arena, having worked previously with for Tina Turner (on a large portion of her 1984 smash Private Dancer album) and Howard Jones. He was a curious choice if the goal really was to get back to basics, as neither of those artists were known for organic-sounding tracks. But as much as I can appreciate the importance of production, it always comes down to the songs, doesn't it?

Well, a lot of fans find those lacking on Presto. Culver takes aim at one particular element: "Neil Peart's lyrics are perhaps his weakest in the entire band's career," he writes. JD politely agrees, adding, "The lyrics could have benefited from more time spent on refinement." As an example he points to The Pass: "All of us get lost in the darkness / dreamers learn to steer by the stars" is a beautiful verse...but, it's followed by "all of us do time in the gutter, dreamers turn to look at the cars." And Lance piles on as well, calling the lyrics "insipid." He concludes that "the songs are B-O-R-I-N-G!...melodious hum-drum" and that on Presto Rush had become "3 musical gods, who somehow, somewhere, forgot how to play."

Before I give my assessment, let me just stop here to marvel at the fact that none of the Amazon reviewers gave in to pun-making. There was not a single comment along the lines of "Rush just doesn't have the magic here." What a fantastic display of self-control!

So, the fans were harsh, but does Presto deserve it? Personally, I say no. The complaints about production are perhaps warranted, and the album is largely workmanlike. As to lyrics, yes, there may be a clunker or two in there, but to my ear there are no outright bad songs (okay, the chorus of Anagram is pretty close to bad). And there are several strong songs on Presto, including the enchanting title track, opener Show Don't Tell, Chain Lightning, The Pass, and the oddly-affecting Available Light.

If I'm picking my least favorite Rush album it would probably be Fly by Night or Caress of Steel, as very early Rush has never been my favorite. I'll also throw 1996's Test for Echo under the bus. It's their only post-1980 album that hasn't connected with me in any meaningful way; mostly because I'm a pop music guy at heart, and Echo is one of Rush's hardest, least song-oriented albums. But at least, I suppose, THERE'S BALLS!