Today, I am headed south to Bushnell, Illinois for the final Cornerstone festival.
I don’t think it’s quite hit me yet that I’ll never get to do this again. Perhaps it will when I see the famous sign: “Cornerstone 1 Miles.” Or perhaps it will when I get to the gallery stage, and start seeing bands take that stage for the final time. The 77s are playing tonight, and I’ll never again see Mike Roe peal out a killer solo under that red and white tent. Perhaps it’ll hit me when I reconnect with Cornerstone friends like Chris Macintosh and David Cervantes, and realize this is the last year for our annual meet-up.
Or perhaps it won’t really hit me until the Choir takes the stage on Saturday night. Longtime readers know that the Choir is my favorite band, and their closing slot is poetic – they were the first band to play Cornerstone, back in 1984. This will no doubt be an emotional set for them, and for those of us in the audience who love them like family. I’ve seen the Choir play Cornerstone half a dozen times now, and after Saturday night, I’ll never see them play Cornerstone again.
So while I expect this week will be fun, I also expect it will be a sad and moving experience. I’ll be sure to tell you all about it next week, along with a recap of all the new music I pick up. That’s another thing I’ll never get to do again – buy new music at Cornerstone. See? I’m already sad.
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So this week I’m going to discuss Rush. I’m warning you now, because if my conversations over the past few weeks have taught me anything, it’s that Rush has somehow become one of the most divisive bands on the planet.
I’m not sure how that happened. (I’m also not sure how Neal Peart went from winning every Modern Drummer poll to being universally disliked by every single drummer I know. But that’s a different story.) Because here’s the thing: I’ve been a Rush fan since I first heard them in the mid-‘80s. My first Rush album may have been Power Windows, but I vividly remember receiving Hold Your Fire as a birthday gift, and loving the hell out of that record.
And then I worked backward to their heavier, more difficult albums, like Hemispheres and Caress of Steel and, yes, 2112. And I loved those as well, even with Geddy Lee’s piercing younger-man vocals. (Parts of “I Think I’m Going Bald” just shoot through me like an icepick.) Rush, to me, has always been about the astonishing skill of its three players, bashing their way through music that tread the fine line between complex and catchy. I stayed with them as they jettisoned the complexity in the ‘90s, producing mediocre records like Counterparts, and rejoiced when they found their groove again on 2002’s Vapor Trails.
And I never, not once, lamented the lack of emotional connection I had with their music. Rush doesn’t make me feel. They don’t move me down to my soul. But then, they’re not trying to. They’re trying to spark my intelligence, fire up my brain. Rush’s music and lyrics are cerebral, generally concerned with heart-stopping musicianship and complexity, and with philosophical concepts writ large. Even their driving song, “Red Barchetta,” is about a future society that has banned certain types of cars.
So yeah, I don’t expect the same thing from Rush that I would from, for instance, Aimee Mann. But it seems a lot of people I know do. They find Rush distant, unemotional. And my only response to that has been, “Well, yeah.” They’re not trying to do anything else. Criticizing Rush for not speaking to your soul is like criticizing Midnight in Paris for not having enough zombies in it. Music can, and does, have a variety of aims, and I think the best way to determine its greatness is to figure out how close to its own objectives it comes.
Of course, I also think Rush is just a kickass rock band. The immense sound they create with just three players is, frankly, ridiculous. And since Vapor Trails, they’ve all but done away with the synths and returned to the business of being the best power trio on Earth. Their last record, 2006’s superb Snakes and Arrows, cranked up the amps even more, and on the subsequent live album, they sounded re-energized, ready to reclaim their particular place in the pantheon. And now, with their 20th album, Clockwork Angels, that rebirth is complete.
Make no mistake, Rush fans, Clockwork Angels is the band’s best record in more than 20 years. I haven’t liked a Rush record this much since Presto in 1989. For starters, they’re on fire, musically speaking. The songs are tremendous, and they slam through them like a band one-third their age. Much of Clockwork Angels sounds like what it is – three guys in a room playing like possessed men. If you’ve heard the opening track, “Caravan,” or the first single, “Headlong Flight,” you know what I mean. They’re alive, just exploding with energy. And where some Rush songs have meandered of late (and by “of late” I mean “since the ‘80s”), these tunes crackle. They’re strong, melodic powerhouses.
Second, this is the band’s first full-fledged concept record since Hemispheres, and getting to tell another story in song seems to have sparked their imaginations. Clockwork Angels is the story of an unnnamed denizen of a society ruled by the Watchmaker and his angels. Framed as an anarchist and a terrorist, he flees and has a series of adventures across an alien landscape, finally retreating from society all together. Yes, it all sounds very Rush, but it may surprise you to learn that they haven’t made a unified record like this in more than 30 years.
If all that makes this album sound impenetrable, then I’m telling it wrong. Because it’s immediate. Clockwork Angels is the most hummable, air-guitarable album Rush has given us in ages. Fans have already heard the first two tracks, “Caravan” and “BU2B” (which stands for Brought Up To Believe), and that vibe, that live band attack, is present for the entire album. This is rock that reaches from the speakers, grabs you by the collar and gives you a good shake. It’s as visceral as Rush has ever been.
Highlights? OK. In addition to those first two, there’s the seven-minute title track, with its delightfully dissonant guitar. Alex Lifeson, it should be noted, is just a jaw-droppingly good guitar player, and his interplay with Lee on bass is something to behold. There’s “Seven Cities of Gold,” a stomper with a catchy chorus. There’s “The Wreckers,” which brings back the mid-‘90s mid-tempo tunes the band used to churn out and puts them all to shame. There’s “Headlong Flight,” seven minutes and 20 seconds of three of the best musicians you’ve ever heard locking into a groove and just riding it.
And there is “Wish Them Well,” the closest thing to a hit single this band has written in a long, long time. An anthem for those ignoring the haters (a phrase Rush would never use), “Wish Them Well” brings Clockwork Angels to an immensely satisfying climax. The actual finale, the gentle, string-accented “The Garden,” is just icing on the cake. Before it even arrives, Clockwork Angels is a delirious, dizzying triumph.
But I’d never recommend Rush to those who want their music to take them on an emotional journey. They just don’t do that. But that’s OK, because plenty of other bands do. Case in point: Sigur Ros.
In many ways, Sigur Ros is – at least for American audiences – pure emotional expression. This Icelandic quartet sings in their native language, when they’re not singing in the gibberish language they invented. So even the vocals bypass the English-speaking brain and go straight to the heart. And the music. Man, the music. Listening to Sigur Ros is like listening to a half-remembered dream. It’s practically a spiritual experience.
Recently, Sigur Ros has been trying for something a little more immediate. Their last album, 2008’s Med Sud Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust, found the band dabbling in shorter, poppier, less orchestrated material. It even contained a track sung in English. And singer Jonsi’s subsequent solo record, Go, dove even further in that direction – lots of acoustic guitars, lots of hummable melodies, lots of English. Don’t get me wrong, those were both very good records, but they just didn’t suit this band (or Jonsi) quite as well.
Which is why their just-released sixth album, Valtari, is such a treat. Eight long, beautiful, otherworldly songs, several without vocals at all, casting a glorious spell. It feels somewhat like a throwback to the inexpressibly wonderful parentheses album, except it mainly works in reverse – where ( ) started gently and built steam over its 72 minutes, ending with the loudest track, Valtari begins softly and just gets less intense from there, concluding with its most placid piece, “Fjogur Piano.”
The result is a nearly unbroken suite of beautiful, emotional dream music, the kind that only this band can make. I say nearly unbroken because the third track, the amazing “Varud,” doesn’t resist the old Sigur Ros buildup. The haunting melody rises up and up, buoyed by horns and strings and a thudding bass drum. But that’s the only song that crescendos. The other seven float in, spread beauty around like stardust, and float out.
The album’s second half, in particular, unfolds more slowly than even Sigur Ros music ever has. The moody “Dautalogn” segues beautifully into the even more atmospheric “Varteldur,” an instrumental accented by delicate piano. The eight-minute title track is like free falling through a cloud while hearing transmissions from space, and when it evaporates, “Fjogur Piano” slowly coalesces around it. A gorgeous elegy for multiple pianos, it evolves into pure bliss by the end of its 7:49. The album ends as it began, quietly dissolving into silence.
Don’t misunderstand me when I say Valtari is this band’s best album in 10 years. They’re Sigur Ros. They can do no wrong. But to my mind, they’re at their best when they stop thinking about the music they’re creating, and just feel it. This is the sound of an astonishing band making the most beautiful music they can. It is an older and wiser and more patient Sigur Ros, but still a heartbreakingly gorgeous one. There is no other band like them. Valtari is magnificent.
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Next week, thoughts on the last Cornerstone. After that, the Levellers, the Early November, and Joe Jackson covering Duke Ellington. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.