Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Filtering by Tag: Geddy Lee

Does It Matter How a Record is Made?

Watching Peter Bogdanovich’s extremely thorough yet watchable documentary on Tom Petty, Runnin’ Down a Dream, I was struck by something Petty said about his work in the early 90s, during which he and producer Jeff Lynne began to use the studio as an instrument and recordings became less about a live performance. "I like whatever makes good records," he said. "I don’t care how it’s made. Nobody cares how a record is made. They care if they like it or not.”

I’ve thought about this quote often as I struggle mightily to complete my current album and employ studio tricks that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago. Yesterday I wanted a cymbal where there wasn’t any recorded during my day-long studio session in late February, so I simply copied a cymbal from one section of the song and pasted it onto another section. On the same song, I noticed that several of the notes I sang were slightly out of tune, so I simply shifted key notes into tune. As for the acoustic guitar I’m currently recording, this I have to do section by section, and sometimes measure by measure, as my playing is so poor that I can’t complete an entire verse or chorus without accidentally deadening a string or striking an unwanted open string. Even my piano tracks – definitely my best instrument – needed a little tweaking, as yesterday I erased an erroneous low note that was clashing with the bass part.

Clearly, I’m not recording a live “performance.” Is this cheating?  Does it matter if it is?  Is Tom Petty correct that nobody cares how a record is made?

In his illuminating book, Here, There and Everywhere, Geoff Emerick writes about late-night sessions during which Paul McCartney would record bass parts over and over until he had the perfect track. Impressive, though I've no doubt that were Emerick recording The Beatles today, he would splice together various bass tracks to create one usable one. Is one technique more pure than the other? Does it matter?

For Tom Petty and The Heartbreaker’s first several albums, they would track everything live at once until they had a perfect take, effectively rehearsing until they got a great performance. This is in stark contrast to the recording of Into the Great Wide Open, during which a musician like Benmont Tench would be asked to play a particular keyboard part during a few measures of a song, and then leave the studio.

On his recent interview on the radio show Sound Opinions, Geddy Lee of the band Rush discussed recording the album Hemispheres. The band initially tried to perform the ambitious side-long title track in its entirety, but ultimately had to record it in sections. Does this fact make the recording any less impressive?

Even Steely Dan, who employed arguably the best musicians on the planet to play on the album Gaucho, used recording tricks to the get the sound they wanted, as producer Roger Nichols created a drum machine called a Wendel to perfect drums parts initially recorded by the likes of Jeff Porcaro! 

Clearly, even getting past today’s largely sterilized recording techniques, we can come up with multiple examples of musicians and producers doing whatever it took to get the sound they wanted.  But is Petty correct when he says nobody cares how a record is made?

I suspect it depends on the listener, on the band, on the era, and on the circumstances. For guys like James Taylor and Jackson Browne, who get to play with the greatest musicians known to Man, I like to think that the albums they record are more performance-based and less studio-trickery, and I would hope that studio guys like Steve Gadd and Michael Landau would insist upon it. And part of the joy of listening to, say, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, is knowing that I’m listening to a live performance. Something would surely be lost if it came to light that “So What” had been recorded track by track. 

It's also kind of sad that our ears have gotten used to hearing perfection, because there was a time when the performance was more important. Keith Richards’s fuzz guitar errors on “Satisfaction” can be heard loud and clear fifty years after the song was recorded. Would the song be any better if it had been recorded in 2015, when no doubt Richards would have rerecorded the guitar part (or, more likely, would have recorded the tune several times and then spliced together various parts for the perfect take)? Do the mistakes take away from the song, or somehow make it more endearing? I don't know.

For now, I continue to plow through what has been a somewhat grueling recording process and attempt to make the best-sounding record I can using the resources available to me. And some of those resources are digital. The Palisades will be complete by summer’s end, and God-willing, it’s going to sound great thanks in large part to modern technology. I’ll take this over a bad-sounding "authentic" record any day.

Maybe Petty has a point.

My Rush Wish List

The band Rush is notorious for sticking to the following script: play most of the new album, the first track off of another 11 or 12 albums, one or two surprises, and call it a tour.  Though I’ve seen them do this eight times (82, 85, 90, 91, 94, 02, 12, 13), rumor has it that the current tour could provided more in the way of surprises, and since this will be the last time I see the band I’m hoping to go out on a high note.  While I could check the set list on-line, I’ve decided to go to Friday night’s show at the United Center in Chicago cold, because anticipating what song comes next is half the fun.

Recognizing that I’m reaching here, below is my Rush Wish List, and I’ll check back after Friday to see what part of my wish comes true.  I suspect very little, but one never knows.  I’m going to go in reverse chronological order.

20) from Clockwork Angels: Headlong Flight

19) from Snakes and Arrows: nothing really, but if I had to pick, Spin Drift would be okay.

18) from Feedback: nothing.

17) from Vapor Trails: Ceiling Unlimited

16) from Test for Echo: Half the World

15) from Counterparts: Between Sun & Moon, Everyday Glory

14) from Roll the Bones: The Big Wheel

13) from Presto: almost anything, but Chain Lightning and Superconductor would be cool.

12) from Hold Your Fire: Prime Mover

11) from Power Windows: Territories (yeah, they played this song on their last tour, but it’s soooo good)

10) from Grace Under Pressure: Kid Gloves

9) from Signals: Analog Kid (again, yeah…played on last tour, but…)

8) from Moving Pictures: Tom Sawyer, Red Barchetta, YYZ

7) from Permanent Waves: Spirit of Radio, Freewill, Jacob’s Ladder, Natural Science

6) from Hemispheres: would love to hear the Prelude and The Sphere from Hemispheres, maybe part of La Villa Strangiato

1-5) Look, it’s no secret that Geddy Lee can no longer hit the night notes, which is fine.  So rather than screech his way through a bunch of old tracks, I’d love to hear a musical medley that includes some of the following:

5) from A Farewell to Kings: A Farewell to Kings, Cygnus X-1

4) from 2112: A Passage to Bangkok, Something for Nothing

3) from Caress of Steel: The Fountain of Lamneth

2) from Fly By Night: Fly by Night

1) from Rush: Before and After

So there you are.  I understand that on this tour there are a number of songs that Rush will be substituting between gigs.  I’ll cross my fingers that I get the better of the two setlists, but either way, it’s been a hell of a ride for this band and this fan.  My son and I will take it all in one last time.

Rush Recap: 20 Albums in 20 Days

Well, it sure has been a fun journey.  Rush is a band that for forty years now has pushed the envelope, evolved with the times, challenged themselves, and produced some terrific albums.  Simply put, there isn’t one original album they’ve released that doesn’t have some redeeming qualities.  Even the worst Rush (except for Feedback) is better than many other bands’ best efforts.

Comparing all twenty albums is a bit ridiculous, because it’s like comparing four or five bands in one.  It’s like contrasting The Beatles of 1964 to The Beatles of 1968 (and that there’s only four years separating “She Loves You” and The White Album is absolutely mind-boggling to me).  When I’m in the mood for progressive Rush, A Farewell to Kings is the ultimate album for me.  A more poppy Rush?  Presto fits the bill.  Something in between, then Permanent Waves is just about perfect. A more rocking album, and you can’t go wrong with Counterparts or Clockwork Angels.  And if you want down-home blues rock, then Rush ain’t too shabby. 

Nonetheless, I will put in order all twenty albums, recognizing that moods and tastes can change on yearly, if not daily, basis.  Suffice it to say that my top five albums will probably be more or less consistent, and my bottom five albums are likely to stay the same (and even some of those aren’t all that bad).  Everything in between is open wide for debate depending on the day.  Here goes…

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#1 Permanent Waves.  Aside from a few production quibbles, a perfect album, the ultimate blend of accessible, exciting rock and roll, thought-provoking ballads and complex, progressive pieces.  

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#2 A Farewell to Kings.  Such an interesting, exciting album, full of intricatacies that keep the listener's attention, yet still melodic and accessible with some wonderful shorter pieces.

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#3 Moving Pictures.  Side two wavers just a bit, but side one is among the most perfect album sides ever recorded.  It's also a standout for it's clean yet full production.

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#4 Presto.  An accessible album that still has a bit of an edge to it.  Exciting and moving, with some especially poignant lyrics by Peart.  The band wishes they could record this album again.  I have no idea what they would change.

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#5 Hemispheres.  A close second to its predessessor for best progressive album by Rush. The band manages a couple of short pieces as well, along with their best instrumental (or is it YYZ?  Close call).

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 #6 Test For Echo.  Yeah, I could have picked Counterparts, and maybe should have.  Both are great albums as Rush began to explore a harder-edged sound.  This is an oft-overlooked album that deserves a second look

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#7 Roll The Bones.  Good almost from start to finish, with relatable lyrics about fate and chance.  Don't think it belongs here?  Think again.  

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#8 2112.  The first side is almost as good as Moving Pictures' first side.  A near-perfect epic.  Side two not as much, but a terrific album that turned things around for the wavering band.

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#9 Counterparts.  A great album whose middle sections loses it just a bit for me.  "Double Agent" gets my vote for the worst original Rush song ever recorded.  Holy crap.

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#10 Clockwork Angels.  That Rush can still produce an album of this quality is remarkable.  A great effort, with shifting moods and instrumentation, with melody and riffs to boot.

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#11 Grace Under Pressure.  One of those albums that used to bug me.  I still don't like "Afterimage," but oh well.  A great bridge between guitar-Rush and synth-Rush.

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#12 Hold Your Fire.  A great poppy album with inspiring lyrics.  The band may vote for "Tai Shan" is its worst song, but I accept it as a mild hiccup on a terrific effort.

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 #13 Signals.  A better album than I expected, with some songs I'd forgotten about and perhaps didn't appreciate years ago.  Men and boys rule the album - be them digital, analog or new world.

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#14 Rush.  A surprisingly good effort, with ridiculous lyrics but oh so sweet riffs and guitar solos.  Better than most of the rock drivel that sold millions in the 70s.

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#15 Power Windows.  Some wonderful tracks that suffocate under the weight of exhausting synth-heavy production.  I'm a keyboardist, and I know a thing or two about the synthesizer, but this goes way over the top.  "Territories" is the standout here.

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#16 Fly By Night.  Yes, a few hiccups here and there, but some terrificly accessible rock songs and a few lengthy numbers that set the stage for what's to come. 

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#17 Vapor Trails.  A tiring, endless album that sabotages its finest moments with terrible sections.  The first two tracks save this album from last place. 

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#18 Caress of Steel.  Some interesting parts, but ultimately an inconsistent release.

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#19 Snakes and Arrows.  I know several Rush fans who would put this album in their top five.  For me it's an endless, morose, unvarying effort.

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#20 Feedback.  Absolutely pointless and unredeeming.

 So there you are.  Disagree?  Chime in and let me know.  After all, Rush fans can disagree.  As Peart penned, "Everybody got to deviate from the norm."

20 Rush Albums in 20 Days: Caress of Steel

DAY TWENTY: Caress of Steel, running time 44:59, released September 24, 1975

Caress of Steel, an album I’ve long considered to be Rush’s worst, is not as bad as I remember.  In fact, it has a lot of things going for it, though I admit I won’t likely be listening to it again anytime soon.  This is an ambitious effort, a full 7 minutes longer than Fly by Night, with the band’s first side-long song, “The Fountain of Lamneth.”

The opening song “Bastille Days” is basically “Athem 2,” a rip-roaring number that was a live favorite for a number of tours.  The band shows its first signs of a sense of humor on the throw-away track, “I Think I’m Going Bald,” a song that would have been better suited on Rush despite it being penned by Peart, and the very accessible “Lakeside Park” is a pleasant tune, oddly out of place considering what’s to transpire (and the guitar is annoyingly panned all the way left during the verses for some inexplicable reason).

“The Necromancer” is Rush’s second venture into the land of extended, multi-section pieces, and it’s an effective one save for the warped, slow-tape narration.  The first movement – the song’s best – is a moody, repetitious, minor-keyed movement reminiscent of a Pink Floyd jam, and the second section brings to mind “Cygnus X-1” with its sudden starts and stops.  The growl of By-Tor come back briefly, but unlike on the Fly By Night album, Geddy wisely get’s out of the way of Lifeson’s solos (regrettably panned back and forth, an amateurish and unnecessary production trick), and the last section has a fine, three-chord outro (think “Sweet Jane”) that gives the song a melodic, positive lift.

Hearing “The Fountain of Lamneth” for the first time in years, I found it alternately brilliant and regrettable.  The first section, “In the Valley,” opens with a beautiful descending acoustic guitar pattern and melodic lyric that would play very well live as part of a largely medley, but then Geddy screeches his way through the next part.  The minute-long “Didacts and Narpets” is unfortunate in every way except that it’s only a minute long.  “No One At The Bridge” recalls the first section of “The Necromancer,” with a moody, hypnotic verse and terrific guitar solo; the only issue is the bridge when Geddy sounds like he’s about to tear his vocal chords apart (and not in a good way).  He takes it down several registers in the next two sections, and they are better for it.  “Panacea” is a flowing ballad, and “Bacchus Plateau” is the album’s most accessible tune, a three-chord pop song at its essence; if this were separate from the rest of the side-song piece it might have been a modest radio hit, and if Geddy could still hit the notes, it would be a great live piece. “The Fountain” ends the album side where it began, offering the listener some familiar territory, a helpful bookend.

So where does it stand head-to-head against other Rush albums?  It's hard to say.  Comparing Caress of Steel to, say, Snakes and Arrows, is like comparing two different bands.  In a way, they are two different bands.

Twenty albums in twenty days!  Tomorrow, I’ll be summarizing my journey, and then I’m taking a week to listen to some other music.

20 Rush Albums in 20 Days: Clockwork Angels

DAY NINETEEN: Clockwork Angels, running time 66:04, released June 12, 2012

Listening to Clockwork Angels, one gets the feeling that Rush enjoyed writing and recording this album.  Unlike Snakes and Arrows, there’s a sense of exploration and joy on this effort, with shifting moods, exciting riffs, some great hooks and plenty of moments that challenge each member of the band.  It’s easily the band’s best effort since Test for Echo, and quite possibly their best album since the early 80s.

The opening “Caravan” immediately provides the hook and infectious chorus so often lacking in later Rush material, setting the stage with the universal chorus of “I can’t stop thinking big,” and “BU2B” provides an exciting opening riff and a memorable refrain. 

The album gets bogged down a bit with the unnecessary effects and interludes.   There’s hardly a guitar part that isn’t bathed in effects, filling up the entire stereo spectrum, and beginnings and endings of songs are extended with traces of vocal and guitar parts swept with ethereal effects, sometimes serving to give the listener a respite from the onslaught of sound, other times doing nothing but prolonging what should have been a much shorter effort.  This isn’t Rush of 1981, after all; they are not at their prolific best.  An album of 50 minutes would have been preferred.

A silly megaphone effect is employed on two successive songs: the title track, and again at 1:55 of “The Anarchist” before going back to a terrific chorus.  As with many recent Rush songs, too often they write great parts of songs without writing an effective piece from beginning to end.  “Carnies” is an example of a track whose verse is a complete mess, but whose other sections work extremely well.

“The Halo Effect” is a complete song – probably the album’s best – melodic from the start, accessible, with universal lyrics, and one of the few times in recent memory that a Rush song ends exactly when it should at just over three minutes.  “The Wreckers” is another gem, perhaps going on a minute too long (particularly at the bridge at 2:50), but again a very good verse and chorus with a contagious guitar intro.

“Headlong Flight” is a blistering seven minutes of pure joy, employing brief allusions to Rush of yesteryear, including riffs from “Bastille Days” and “By-Tor and the Snow Dog.”  It’s a powerhouse that I would expect to be included in any future tours the band might make, though I wonder if Clockwork Angels might be Rush’s swan-song.  It wouldn’t be a bad way to cap off a forty-year career.

As with so many hard-rock albums these days, Rush squashed the sound too much in the mastering process.  You can practically hear the limiter pumping at 1:10 of “Seven Cities of Gold” as Geddy reaches for the high notes.  I also noticed it at 2:43 of “Carnies.”  Not a preferred production technique, but it’s unfortunately been the trend of heavy rock music for the past decade.  Listen to A Farewell to Kings back to back with Clockwork Angels and you’ll hear just how much production has changed since the 70s, and not all for the better.

“The Garden” ends the album with an touching summary of what one takes away after a long life of ups and downs.  And then…it says it again and again, for almost seven minutes.  But oh well.  Such is the reality of an ambitious band in the CD age (though we’re almost out of that age, I would suspect).  

Tomorrow, I’ll be listening to Caress of Steel, a very weird way to end a twenty-day journey.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved