The gentle, knowing vocal on this brought to mind David Johansen’s sweet turn, on the New York Dolls classic “Lonely Planet Boy”: both are understated, and weirdly romantic, and perfectly embraced by the louder, equally pretty guitars swirling around them. This is a lovely thing…
Author: Hope Silverman
Rush’s “Subdivisions”: One band. One song.
Rush were, are and will always be loved. They’ve sold millions of records, are regarded as one of the finest live bands in musical history and in 2013 were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They can also lay claim to having one of the greatest drummers of all-time, the late Neil Peart, in their ranks. The plus column is stuffed with powerful affirmations of their goodness yet I just, plain, can’t get into them. But lord oh lord, how I’ve tried.
I’d been particularly charmed by their 2010 bio documentary and career retrospective, Beyond the Lighted Stage, had found myself completely won over by the trio’s camaraderie, humor and self-awareness. I was so invested in maintaining these good feelings that I decided to read not one but two of Neil Peart’s acclaimed travel memoirs in quick succession. I actively tried make Rush happen in my heart.
Of course I recognized that the film and books were mere ephemera and a diversion from what really mattered. Yup, I knew that to truly understand and experience Rush in a meaningful way, I had to spend time listening to the actual music. And so I did, the whole discography. It didn’t work. Which is to say as I was listening, I felt nothing. Was not transported. Had no epiphany.
Wishful attempts like this to love, feel and understand Rush were actually nothing new to me. My approach to appreciating Rush was disturbingly similar to having a drivers license or passport renewed. Every few years like clockwork I would check in, usually after witnessing some extreme display of fandom and/or worship, then trawl through the discography. And the result was always the same. Several years prior to the documentary, I’d been similarly swayed to give them another chance after witnessing the unbridled Rush passion of Nick Andopolis on Freaks and Geeks ( a TV show so painfully, chronologically on point for me that I officially categorize it as a 19-part documentary). Seeing Nick’s complete and utter worship of the band, watching him clumsily, passionately thrash along to “Spirit of the Radio” on his 29 piece drum kit and later defend drummer Neil Peart’s genius to his ex-girlfriend’s Lindsay’s Dad, was downright inspiring. And with that I hopefully cued up their mega Moving Pictures album…and felt nothing as it played.
“Neil Peart is the greatest drummer alive !”…say no more Nick, turn that shit up…
And so why continually try when these attempts have never worked ? Well, it’s all because of one song, 1983’s fatly synthesized anthem of teen alienation and ennui, “Subdivisions”. I loved it. That song was the singular source of this blind and apparently eternal optimism. Back in the day, it’d spoken to my young, angst-ridden ass as deeply as any of the songs my most beloved band at the time The Smiths had kicked out. It was my “Manchester, so much to answer for”. But my “Manchester” was the considerably less historic, austere, damaged and romantic patch of unbridled suburbia known as, uh, Long Island. And so The Smiths were only gonna get so far in terms of helping make sense of the world in which I lived out my teen-dom. “Subdivisions” on the other hand understood. It got me.
In the High School Halls
In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out
Yes, Rush, yes, I would geekily think anytime I heard it. “Subdivisions” was released just as MTV was beginning to grow in popularity and the song’s video was on constantly. And since I watched MTV roughly 4-5 hours a day every day (sick), it was only a matter of time before it planted its flag into my oh so impressionable psyche. Of course, as was the trend in music videos of the time, the visuals were painfully literal. Faceless suburban streets, check. Lonely bespectacled nerd ignored by oblivious, happy popular kids, check. Rush themselves, check, check, check. Here it is, in all its glory:
Nowhere is the dreamer
Or the misfit so alone
If I’m being honest, as far as my teenage musical touchstones go, I’ve spent more time listening to “Subdivisions” over the past several decades than I have the entire Smiths discography. I know that sounds sacrilege but that’s the mysterious and insidious power of “Subdivisions”. Rush said everything I needed to hear to feel understood and seen in one song. That’s all it took. Just the one song. And as it turned out that’s all I needed from Rush. And maybe after all this longterm effort that’s the real epiphany I was meant to have. And I couldn’t have asked for more.
P.S. In 2007, singer-pianist Anita Athavale released an absolutely kick ass cover of “Subdivisions” which as of this writing is not available on any of the streaming services…but it is on YouTube albeit in the weirdest and most on the nose way imaginable. Anita’s version provides the poignant soundtrack for a resolutely grim, un-ironic video tribute to a deceased shopping mall in Cleveland (complete with a “1976-2009” graphic at the end). Seriously though, Anita strips it down to its bones and it’s ridiculously good. Here it is :
P.P.S. The Rush fanbase is overwhelmingly male. While this “boys love Rush” phenomenon is discussed with sweet and hilarious candor in the aforementioned Beyond the Lighted Stage, nothing beats the depiction offered in the 2009 buddy comedy I Love You Man. Come cringe along with Rashida Jones, playing Paul Rudd’s beleaguered girlfriend, as she experiences the effect Rush has on grown men in real time. It’s perfect.
Jack River “Fool’s Gold”
Want a fat, cynical, perfect pop song, filled with bits of Weezer, Gwen Stefani, and vintage Madonna that will immediately take up residence in your head for the rest of the day, and maybe longer ? Yeah you do…
Aislinn Logan “So Loud”
Belfast singer/songwriter Aislinn Logan has a transcendently stunning voice, and this track, off her debut EP “Lost or Gone”, showcases it to perfect effect. A simple circular melody, bookended with the hollow, faceless sounds of a train station, the mood is weary and sad, and the whole thing is pretty damn beautiful.
Warik “Zoom Out/Changed @ Once”
Welcome to the weird, woozy, and wonderful world of Warik, where you are perpetually dizzy, and high, and everything is the color of rainbows. Quirky, and melodic, occasionally sounding as if they were recorded underwater, both of these tracks are culled from his new “In My Lens” EP, and are unquestionably a drug in, and of themselves. Thank you Warik.
Blaenavon are here…
It is June, which in the land of music blogs, means lists. Specifically “Best Albums So Far This Year Now That We’re Halfway Through” lists. Guessing you’ve seen a few of those these past weeks, but don’t worry, gonna sidestep attaching a list here, and just offer up some love for one particular thing, that should’ve appeared on a lot more of these aforementioned lists…actually it should’ve been on all of them : Blaenavon’s, “That’s Your Lot”. It’s a unicorn, it’s singularly special, it’s one of the best albums of 2017, and here’s why….
What is Blaenevon ? Well, it’s a lot of things at the same time, beautiful, preciously mannered vocals ( “wept” is pronounced whep-P-T around here), and epic, instrumentally unhinged coda’s, it’s prog, and britpop, it’s full of hooks, and angst, and admissions. It’s where dangerous schoolgirls, and Ziggy Stardusts share cigarettes, make regretful confessions, cry, and make out….seriously though, this is not hyperbole : all of that is really, really in there. Go see them live, and I swear it will all make sense.
There’s much to love on “That’s Your Lot”, from the ethereal swirling beauty of “Ode to Joe”, dedicated to eccentric sixties musical genius Joe Meek, and his futuristic vision, to the circular guitar refrains, lush “oohs”, and booming bass of “Swans”, to the exquisite falsetto pop in “Take Care”, to what is surely the #1 song in an alternate universe right now, “Orthodox Man”. Basically it’s a bunch of killer singles neatly disguised as a debut album.
There are a lot of gorgeous, fully realized songs living on “That’s Your Lot”, all worthy of attention, and full headphone submergence, so give it a listen below…hey, you might even fall in love, and what could be better than that ?
Blue Endless Abyss “Dead Glamour Dance”
I kept waiting for this song to start, you know, in the same way you wait for a Cure song to start i.e. couple of minutes of instrumental intro build-up, and then boom, Robert Smith dramatically crashes in, and gives you a bear hug. Anyway, it never started. It just moved forward in a subdued, straight Krautrock line until nearly 4 minutes had gone by. Played it again to see if I’d missed anything. Then again. And now thinking there may be a subliminal message in there somewhere, because before I knew it, it had played 10x in a row, so something is unquestionably happening here, and it’s something good.
Parker Longbough “Hall Pass”
Yes, that guitar riff is a little “Song 2” by Blur, but make no mistake, this song is it’s own man, all nasal vocals, and swagger, and world weariness. The featured lyric says it all: “people always wanna know about the trips to the bathroom, people always said that you had a strange aura about you”. That’s this one in a nutshell, and it’s mighty fine.
Patricia “Rain vs. Sunshine”
Patricia is the brainchild of multi-media artist Jacolby Satterwhite, and this is not so much a song, as it is a meandering sketch, which I mean in the best possible way. It’s a beautiful one, truly evoking an air of lonely, nighttime streets in downtown NYC, in the eighties. Part of what creates that specific feeling, is the incorporation, of the hook line from Taana Gardner’s 1981 dance/club classic “Heartbeat”, in the most delicate, and desolate fashion. This is “Quiet Storm” for solitary space aliens.
Valerie Carter is worth remembering…
In the nascent days of cable tv in the ’70s, when it was known around these parts as “Cablevision,” acquiring content was a challenge. At least I assume it was, because to my kid eyes it seemed like they were showing the same cruddy movies every single day with little to no variation. As a result I thought this cable thing was overrated and just plain sucked. Then, out of the blue, something happened that radically altered my opinion. A movie came along that I loved so much that I wanted to see it all the time and their inability to fill the air with massive amounts of new stuff meant I could. The movie in question: the now bonafide cult classic of suburban teen ennui and Matt Dillon’s film debut, 1979’s Over the Edge. It felt like an epiphany. It was the very first time I’d seen “myself” in an actual movie. The kids were the same age as me and my friends, they looked like us, talked like us and and got up to the same stupid, semi-illegal stuff we did to kill time (although we never went through with the plans to burn the school down like the kids in the movie did because we were all talk). Anyway, I loved it.
Over the course of the film, tension between the kids and the adult authority figures grows until it ultimately explodes into a violent and deadly confrontation.The closing scene shows the aftermath with the kids who were caught and arrested for their part in the mayhem being taken away on a school bus heading to “The Hill”, some juvie-reform school type place. The sun is going down, streaming through the bus’s windows onto the faces of the kids, and though it’s by no means a happy ending, the scene is imbued with hope. And that’s solely down to the song soundtracking it, Valerie Carter‘s languid, gorgeous cover of The Five Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child.” The scene and the song literally meld together as one and the whole thing is kinda perfect.
The Five Stairsteps were a family group featuring 5 of the 6 kids in the Burke family, and they enjoyed great success in the R & B charts. They only ever managed to land one song in the pop Top 10, but oh man, was it a good one. Released in 1970, “O-o-h Child” was and is an incontrovertible classic (hear it here). With its urgently sunny horns and hopeful core message, it remains the perfect listening salve for anyone having a hard time. Yet somehow, in 1977, Valerie Carter made this seemingly perfect song even better.
While most of Valerie’s career was spent singing back-up for people like James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Christopher Cross throughout the ’70s and ’80s, she did record two promising solo albums during that time. Her first and best, Just a Stone’s Throw Away, featured her version of “O-o-h Child” as its lead track. Unlike the original, the mood on Valerie’s is not one of horn-fueled urgency but of tentative consolation. The song unfolds slowly as her warm and soaring voice gradually ascends, its full power unleashed in the climactic last verse. The whole thing exudes a soulful ’70s Southern California sun going down vibe and features an especially handsome and breezy guitar solo in the bridge. I hate the word sublime, but you know what, the whole thing is utterly sublime. And, true confession, it is not only my favorite cover version ever but one of my straight up favorite songs of all-time.
The best way to describe her career is as one of those woulda/coulda/shouda situations. After the aforementioned releases ( in 1977 and 1978), it was literally crickets in terms of her solo output; she didn’t release another album until 1996. Her time in between was spent touring with James and Jackson and singing on other people’s records, her most famous vocal turn appearing within soft rock flamingo Christopher Cross’s self-titled debut album, which sold 5 million copies and was the Grammy Album of the Year in 1980. While a lot of people were exposed to her beautiful, soaring, full of longing voice on the album’s duet “Spinning” they didn’t necessarily register that it was her, Valerie Carter, masterfully lifting it off the ground ( and she totally does, listen below), they were just, you know, playing the Christopher Cross album and basking in its west coast sunset glow ( by the way, it’s a pretty nice glow and no one should be embarrassed for liking it, so go on then, bask).
Valerie Carter passed away on March 4th of 2017 at the too young age of 64. It appears the last years of her life were challenging as she battled substance abuse issues, got arrested twice as a result in 2009 and was ultimately sent to rehab.
She was an incredible singer, in possession of a truly transcendent voice, just a wondrous artist that never got the appropriate due in her lifetime, yup. Anyway, I wanted to acknowledge her upon her passing, to try and explain how f-ing awesome I think she was. Not sure if I’ve conveyed that convincingly or with the appropriate force. All I know is both “O-o-h Child” and “Wild Child”, the title track off her second album have acted as literal lighthouses in a storm for me during some absolute crap times. And when life feels like too much, I can’t think of another voice I’d rather hear.
Listen to “O-o-h Child”
Listen to “Wild Child”
By the way, Jackson Browne wrote a song about Carter in 1980 which pretty much sums it up and says it all: it’s called “That Girl Could Sing.”