Sunday, March 29, 2009

Music Review: Rush - Retrospective 3 (1989-2008) (CD/DVD)

If you have more than a casual interest in rock music, chances are you're at least somewhat familiar with the music of Rush, and chances are that you've formed an opinion. The most common opinions are adulation, and befuddled indifference (generally a male/female divide, respectively). They are well known for a heady brand of classic hard rock, characterized by ambitious musical forms and intellectual lyrics, as in their early-80's rock radio staples "Tom Sawyer" and "The Spirit of Radio."

During the 1980's, Rush abandoned the heavy "concept" approach to music, and spent their efforts honing their songwriting craft. They explored a synthesizer-heavy sound, with lots of keyboards and foot pedals being used to generate massive amounts of electronic sounds onstage (and on record). After 1987's "Hold Your Fire," the band took a step back, and realized that it was time to get back to basics. 1989's "Presto" is a step in this direction, and over the next two decades, they succeeded in reinventing themselves as a ROCK band. "Retrospective 3" is an overview of the fruits of their labor.

Throughout this period, Rush concerts tended to include mostly tried-and-true classics, interspersed with obligatory newer tunes. Not surprisingly, the newer tunes tended to get overlooked, in favor of the familiar crowd-pleasers. And that's a shame, because the band has managed to make some excellent musical statements.

Kicking off the compilation (or double-kicking, as in double kick drums), is the bold "One Little Victory," featuring pounding drums, thick riffing, and relatively simple, uplifting lyrics about how "the greatest act can be one little victory." "Dreamline" follows, an anthemic musical picture of the excitement of chasing dreams through starry skies and sandy deserts. And so it continues ...

One thing that strikes me throughout this compilation, is how much the band has matured throughout its lengthy career. Drummer Neil Peart's lyrics have more often than not seemed to come from the left half of his brain, but with the benefit of experience, I see an emerging sensitivity to the emotional, holistic side of things. For example, "Animate" is a thought-provoking presentation of Jungian ideas of man's feminine side. "The Pass" is a sensitive, passionate plea to the suicidal not to "[lose] the will to fight." "Earthshine," one of my personal favorites, is a beautiful picture of two lovers, aglow in each other's presence.

Musically, the band members have taken steps back from the instrumental gymnastics that had been their hallmark. They have not dumbed down their musical expression at all, but have focused more on feeling and texture than on agility. On the aforementioned "Animate," the band takes a calmer, more "groove-oriented" approach to their rock style to complement the lyrical themes. Interestingly, the band's efforts to recapture their original "heavy" sound comes to full fruition on "Earthshine," making it one of the heaviest love songs ever written. Guitarist Alex Lifeson also returns to the acoustic guitar on several tracks. All in all, this is no longer a band out to impress everyone with their chops. They made their point that they can play; now they try to settle down and create some good tunes.

However, even as a fan, I can't say that I can get behind all of the band's explorations over the last couple decades. "Driven" attempts to be a more typical "Rushian" expression of being, well, driven crazy, with its heavy odd-meter riffing and lyrics about being "driven to the edge of a deep, dark hole," but it comes across as forced, failing to capture that crazy spiraling, "out of control" feeling as on earlier works like "Cygnus X-1" or "Natural Science." Most notably, the title track from 1991's "Roll the Bones" contains a most embarrassing, miserable foray into the then-budding genre of rap-rock. "Jack, relax, get busy with the facts," singer/bassist Geddy Lee "raps." Okay ... FACT: Rush is white. FACT: Rush is Canadian. FACT: "Roll the Bones" sucks. There, I said it.

For the fans, there are two remixes from their notoriously sonically poor 2002 recording "Vapor Trails." Yes, it sounds better, but no, it's not perfect (the drums and bass sound significantly weaker and drier). Also included is a live recording of "Ghost of a Chance," a gem from 1991's "Roll the Bones." I like it.

The DVD is mostly a collection of music videos from this era of the band. They range from embarrassingly cheesy ("Roll the Bones"), to bland, to decently well done ("The Pass," "Malignant Narcissism"). Also included are three live tracks: "The Seeker," a Who cover, "Secret Touch," a rocker from "Vapor Trails," and a stripped-down acoustic "Resist" from 1997's "Test for Echo." As a bonus, we get to see the band's first TV performance in 30+ years, an appearance on "The Colbert Report," conducting an interview and playing their classic "Tom Sawyer." Good stuff.

Compilations can be tricky things. Especially when you're a band with a long public career and established canon. How can you repackage the same half-dozen songs over and over? "Retrospective 3" avoids this trap by specifically focusing on the often overlooked "modern" era of the band. It shows that Rush as a band has continued to (*ahem*) progress, continuing to push their abilities and grow as musicians. And in the process, they've made some great music. Well done.

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