Friday, March 27, 2015

Rush R40 Countdown at No. 10: 'Presto,' 'Power Windows' and taking time to play all the songs

Will and I are continuing our countdown to what will be an epic Rush concert in June by ranking Rush albums from the least-glorious release to "Moving Pictures." Our selection of "2112" as pick number 11 was not well-received, Let's see what happens with No. 10.

No. 10: “Presto”
Released in 1989

Highlights: “Presto,” “The Pass,” “Superconductor”

Least-glorious moment: The last four seconds of “Chain Lightening.”

Cool Neil Peart lyrical moment:

“The evening plane rises up from the runway
Over constellations of light
I look down into a million houses
And wonder what you're doing tonight "
-- "Presto"

It’s so easy to skip through songs these days.

I think that ability might affect the way we listen to, and relate to, albums.

It used to be that I would think of music in terms of album “sides” instead of individual songs.

At first, skipping a song I didn’t care for required getting up, carefully picking up the needle on the spinning record, looking for the groove for the next song and carefully placing it down to avoid scratching the disc forever.

With the advent of cassettes, it meant clicking the “fast forward” button, guessing when it might have skipped through enough tape to get to the next song, then rewinding or fast forwarding again until I hit the beginning of the song I wanted.

Here's an amazing live version of "Presto."

But CDs require just a tap of a button on the stereo -- especially in the car, where I can flip through songs with my thumb on the steering wheel console. IPods demand even less effort after I’ve adjusted the playlist to stack the songs I like best up front.

In retrospect, the extra effort resulted in listening to songs that might not have appealed at first. You get to know them a little better through the repeated plays. Some songs required a little extra time to grow on you and allow their magic to shine through.

That might be one reason many of the 1980s era Rush albums are bunched in the top half of our countdown. And maybe I would have enjoyed later releases like “Vapor Trails” had I been forced listen to all the songs before skipping to “Earthshine.”

I think “Presto” was the last Rush album that I listened to primarily on cassette, and it’s not a surprise that I know all the songs well and like them a bunch – especially since my favorite song is all the way at the end of Side One.

Some of my new friends in The Rush Forum were aghast not only that we ranked “2112” at No. 11, but that we also both ranked it below “Presto.”

It’s a quirky transitional album, to be sure. There’s more of Alex’s guitar and less synths. It might not have many great songs, but it has a lot of really, really good songs.

There are some deep themes – “The Pass” deals with tragedy of teen suicide – but overall it’s a lighter feel than “Grace Under Pressure.”
"Presto" on cassette!
There is some interesting experimentation, too. “Scars” sounds like the boys were listening to some Frankie Goes to Hollywood. “Superconductor” is a rocker with a soaring synth chorus and I don’t understand why it’s not a concert staple today.

Even more surprising is that the title cut, which I think of as the centerpiece for the entire album, wasn’t played live until the 2010 “Time Machine” tour. It’s an amazing song; probably in my Rush top five. I was overjoyed to finally have a live version.

It’s a little different lyrical structure for Neil. He’s not telling a story or making a point, but instead offering a series of little, first-person vignettes that don’t seem to be connected. You see them all above because I couldn’t pick a section I liked best. Alex alternates acoustic and electric guitar parts, and Neil cracks the snare with loud snaps seemingly at random in some parts.

It all comes together in a special way, kind of like the album as a whole – as long as you take the time to listen to it and not skip ahead.

And Will joins the discussion:

Well, if they find it shocking that we have it above 2112, they'll really be shocked when they see my how the rest of my list shakes out. Needless to say, but I'll say it anyway, I don't have it at No. 10.

No. 10: Power Windows
Released in 1985

Power Windows came out just as my departure from Rush began. It was the first album I didn't buy after Moving Pictures. I was already off Rush a bit from Grace Under Pressure, and when The Big Money hit MTV, and it sounded just like Distant Early Warning (or at least enough in my mind at the time), I said buenas noches, mein froinds!

Here's a killer live version of "Grand Designs" from "Power Windows."

In 1989, I was living in the suburbs of Chicago and slowly coming back to life after a brutal breakup the summer before. I had next to no money, so what little I had to spend on music had better be to my liking.

I couldn't afford to throw away $7 on a cassette tape, let alone $17 for a CD. (Records were gone from the suburban record stores.)

I was in Musicland one day when I saw that Rush--yes, they still were around after all--had released a live album: A Show of Hands. I perused the song list carefully and saw a few things I recognized: Witch Hunt, Closer to the Heart and Subdivisions. I also saw a lot I didn't, so I put the tape back down ... that day.

Not long after that, I really was in need of new music. All my favorite bands were dead, and what was going on with the rise of folky alternative rock, like 10,000 Maniacs and Fine Young Cannibals and Edie Brickell &New Bohemians, did nothing for me. I needed ... something!

So I went back to Musicland and bought A Show of Hands. What the heck: I'd gone to the live album well with Rush and it paid off each time. What could be the worst that happened? I'd have a live version of Subdivisions, one of my most favorite songs. It could be worse.

I don't remember the day, but I remember the song: Marathon. The song, of course, comes right after Subdivisions, so it was easy to just let the tape run through and ... hey, this is a pretty good song. I started listening to the Subdivisions-Marathon pairing a lot. From there, I decided to go deeper into the tape. Then I found Mystic Rhythms.

Woah! This was a Rush I'd never heard before: mysterious, atmospheric with a world beat underneath. I loved it. Mystic Rhythms became the song of the summer of 1989 for me.

Completing the trio, appropriately, was Manhattan Project. Rush was three-for-three on songs I'd never heard before from Power Windows, and when Presto, Dave's selection here, came out, I bought it almost instantly.

The next summer, my brother asked if I wanted to see Rush--more accurately, he asked if I wanted to see Rush from the 10th row at Cooper Stadium. This was a huge deal. At the time, Columbus, where I grew up, just wasn't getting anybody. In 1988, Pink Floyd went to Columbus and played Ohio Stadium, which was as big as anything I'd ever recalled happening to my hometown. (Naturally, it caused much consternation for folks who were outraged that some heathen rock band was going to trod the same hallowed ground where Saint Woody used to don shirtsleeves in the snow in November while beating That Team Up North. I kid you not.)

Rush at Cooper Stadium? 10th row? Hell yeah I'll go! The Boys started with Force Ten while the June sun was still high in the sky, so you couldn't see any lights or videos. It didn't matter. I was 50 feet from Alex Lifeson, and I was going nuts. Four songs in, they played Subdivisions followed by ... Marathon! It was the same pairing that I was loving a year before, the same pairing that drew me back in to Rush. My love of Rush was reaffirmed and, from then on, unwavering.

So, why isn't Power Windows higher? I never went back and listened to the rest of the album for one thing. (I happen to like the other albums better for another.) It was only on the last tour that I heard Grand Designs and Territories for the first time. But Power Windows birthed the songs that rekindled my love for Rush in a summer when I was struggling to find myself, so it always will hold a special place in my heart.

Our countdown so far:
No. 15: Fly by Night (Dave) and Counterparts (Will)

No. 16: Vapor Trails (Both of us)


Robert Owens said...

Will, you put 2112 below in part because "Don't get me wrong: It's Rush, and “A Passage to Bangkok” is good, but, well, you have to have more than one epic album side and one good song to make it into my top 10."

Yet, for Power Windows you state, "So, why isn't Power Windows higher? I never went back and listened to the rest of the album for one thing."

You love three songs from this album, admitted not listening to the balance of the album for a long time and it ranks higher than one of the all-time classics that may have a couple lesser songs on side two?

Pfftt . . . with all due respect. :)

Will said...

Before I respond, have you ever noticed that when someone writes "with all due respect," what they really mean is "you're a friggin' moron"? Me, too.

With all due respect, Bob, I believe that you missed the point of the review. It isn't that one album with three great songs and one good song should beat an album of one epic song and one good song or whatever. It's the weight of those three particular songs.

They were all responsible for getting me back into Rush. Without Marathon, Mystic Rhythms and Manhattan Project, there is no Will's favorite Rush albums list beyond the four I knew before rediscovering Rush.

For all of its "all-time classicness," 2112 simply can't match that. I'm sure it does for others; I can't argue that. This is my list.

Perhaps I didn't explain myself elegantly, but the sum of Power Windows beats the sum of 2112, in my opinion. (For what it's worth, I originally had 2112 higher than Power Windows until I started thinking about what that album through those three songs meant to me.) The sum of Power Windows, however, doesn't beat the sum of any of the nine selections above it, in my opinion.

I hope that explains it better, and thanks for reading.

Robert Owens said...

Are those three songs on Power Windows "more than one epic album side and one good song"?

Will said...

What part of "the sum of Power Windows beats the sum of 2112, in my opinion" do you fail to comprehend?

Robert Owens said...

Apparently I do. Three songs on Power Windows equals less than one side as each side had four songs. I'll go away now.