Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Year in Rush Part 7: Focus on the Song

I took the first few steps in my music education degree while living in the ad hoc “music dormitory” at UNT, Bruce Hall. Although I was a pretty active musician for a high school kid, this was an entirely different environment with a ridiculously high level of musicianship. There was also an unfortunate bouquet of jazz snobbery that, as an insecure freshman, was hard to ignore. With a world-class 18 year-old bassist across the hall warming up on Portrait of Tracy every day, it felt a bit bourgeois to examine Presto too closely.  A self-taught garage band bassist like me seemed to have no place, so my playing relationship with Lee abruptly ended late in 1989. The last passage in Rush's catalog I learned was the bass break at 3:15 in Show Don't Tell.



Rush generally conceived their work was as "instrumentals with words,” but in the 90s, they made a concerted effort to hone their effectiveness as songwriters,  This had a noticeable effect on the energy of their music. Show Don’t Tell notwithstanding, if you look at Presto in terms of the flash and bang of their previous work, overall, it doesn't seem to add up. For example, Rush consistently cites The Pass as one of their favorite songs. Certainly, I loved it when it came out, but I found its relatively laid-back energy and circumspect melancholy perplexing. Seeing it performed live on the Presto tour, however, was revealing for both the song and the album as a whole.


I eventually became a staunch advocate of Presto, although I admit that I was confused by some of Rush's musical choices on the album. The title track from next album, Roll the Bones, was also controversial amongst their fan base for its infamous spoken-word “rap” section. Time has allowed me to appreciate this experiment, but the mohawk-endowed skull from the video is still a bit cringe-worthy.


Rush's endeavors to become songwriters in the 90s did not transform  them into a power pop group, but on Roll the Bones, it did result in a more radio-friendly sound. Although their intention to simplify for the sake of accessibility sometimes felt a little forced, there are tracks when Rush’s cleverness lends itself incredibly well to pop songwriting.

You Bet Your Life (Remastered LP Version) by Rush on Grooveshark

Roll the Bones also recaptured some of the vigor that characterized Rush's streamlined trio sound, which I missed on their previous releases. When the album came out in 1991, I had moved downstairs and around the corner into a room at the base of a stairwell, and I was much more confident, perhaps even a bit brash, about my identity in our little community. I vividly remember bringing he album home from the Sound Warehouse store on Fry Street and, putting my oversized stereo speakers in the doorway, defiantly flooding the halls with the crackling energy of Dreamline.

Dreamline by R U S H on Grooveshark

It’s important to note that from here on out, things seem to change for Rush quickly in retrospect because the pace of their output began to slow. Up until the mid-80s, they released an album virtually every year. In the 90s, they averaged two or three years between albums. The inspiration behind the changes in their sound became more difficult to track, and I think that the gap between their studio-influenced compositions and their live persona resulted in some inconsistencies. The albums from this period may not have won Rush any new fans, but they are still stronger releases than the best albums of the majority of early 90s bands.

Jump to the previous post in the series here.
The next post is right here.

2 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. I try to avoid track-by-tracks in these entries, so sometimes I have to omit my impressions of favorite tracks. It broke my heart to cut the section I wrote on "Available Light" (which is one of my all-time favorite Rush tracks) for the sake of brevity.

      I think "Presto" is one of the stronger tracks off the album, as well, and a unique entry in their catalog. The traces of their Who lineage is, as you assess, quite evident in this dynamic track.

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