Monday, July 13, 2015

Rush - Xanadu

Rush is Canada’s greatest rock band. I do not think there is much debate surrounding this, they are by far the most critically acclaimed rock band my country has ever produced, they have sold by far the most records of any Canadian group, and they are wildly popular inside our borders and well respected without, and their body of work continues to grow to this day.

I have not been a very good Canadian; I have never seen Rush live. I almost saw Rush in 2013 but the flood wrecked Calgary and Rush had to reschedule the event in Red Deer and without a car I was not confident I could get up there in time. It was the only time I had purchased insurance on concert tickets, so that worked out at least. Finally on July 15th of 2015 I will live the Canadian dream and finally see our greatest musical treasure live. All I have to do now is stay alive a few more days.

One of the things I love the most about Rush is that they were a band that basically broke all the rules and yet everything worked out brilliantly for them. Their second album “Fly By Night” was a commercial success so they were pressured to do more of the same, and instead they released a series of extremely experimental progressive rock albums, and defying all conventional wisdom at the time, all of them were critical and commercial successes.

In 1977 Rush released their fifth studio album, “A Farewell to Kings,” and on that album there is a song called “Xanadu.”

"To seek the sacred river Alph
To walk the caves of ice
To break my fast on honey dew
And drink the milk of Paradise...."

I love honey dew, it is probably my favorite fruit. I also love eleven minute rock epics with elaborate guitar solos and unique synthesizers, especially when the song is about the quest for immortality, so yes, I really like the song “Xanadu.”

Xanadu is actually a real place, as the alternate name for Shangdu a city in China, and was the temporary capital of Kublai Khan’s empire when he ruled the area. It is now the modern day town Dolon Nor, but like Arcadia, it has more poetic and symbolic cultural meaning then it’s real life historical existence. Now a day’s Xanadu/Shandgu mostly lies in ruins, but according to various accounts the city was once splendorous, and thanks to a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, titled “Kubla Khan,” the city has become more of a metaphor for paradise than anything else. 

"Xanadu" by Sarel Theron
In fact the definition of the word Xanadu is now “A place of great beauty, luxury, and contentment.”

A cursory glance at Rush’s lyrics for “Xanadu” and the lines from Coleridge’s poem, we see some very similar word choice for the description of the wondrous city, strongly suggesting an obvious influence.

Knowing all this helps understand the song “Xanadu” a little more, it makes sense for Geddy Lee to mention Kublai Khan since we are talking about his city and the line about the “pleasure dome” makes super sense when we recall the largest harem in history was Kublai Khan’s. Also knowing that Xanadu is a paradise as well as borderline mythical, it is a suitable location for our traveler to come to find the magical secret to immortality, presumably by drinking the milk of paradise, and eating the fruits of life, which is presumably honey dew since it is so delicious.

To be honest “Xanadu” is a rare example where I have never really paid the closest attention to the lyrics, which is unlike me. “Xanadu” has always been a song where I have just sat back and absorbed the sounds of the guitar, drums and keyboard. It hardly mattered what Geddy Lee was singing about, the sounds of the song were more than enough. It was a great song to get lost in and at eleven minutes and ten seconds there is plenty of time to wonder within.

It is a fantastic little trip, not just “Xanadu” but the whole album “A Farewell Kings.” It does not flow from song to song like one piece of music the way the two previous albums did, but there are plenty of long well crafted moments and the final product is very psychedelic, with the most psychedelic moment likely being “Xanadu.” I say likely, because the final song off of “A Farewell to Kings” is a wild ride called “Cygnus X-1 (Book 1)” which coincides with the first song off of the next album, 1978’s “Hemispheres” aptly titled “Cygnus X-1 (Book 2).” Normally this flow of one track to another does not transcend this way, but what I can say Rush is that progressive.

Well I learned a lot talking about this song and with any luck I might get to hear “Xanadu” on Wednesday.

Until next month, keep on rocking in the free world.

- King of Braves

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Dears - Ballad of Human Kindness

The Dears are a Canadian indie rock band from Montreal. The Dears were created and are fronted by Murray Lightburn, who from what I can tell from listening to his music is a very passionate and compassionate man. The Dears is Murray’s band, this is evident not just because he writes all the songs and performs as lead singer and plays various other instruments, but also because the only other person who has been a member of the The Dears since the beginning other than Murray is keyboard player and backing vocalist Natalia Yanchak, who is now married to Murray.

Natalia Yanchak and
Murray Lightburn of
The Dears
There is a softness and a sweetness to the many of The Dears’ songs that are highly effective at drawing the listener into an emotional state. These songs have a touch of the hypnotic that is both relaxing and yet also stimulating. After twenty years of very active touring and five studio albums The Dears’ have managed to create a modest but respectable following in the United Kingdom and their native Canada, but little else outside of that. Effectively The Dears are underrated.

This year, 2015, The Dears’ newest album “Times Infinity Volume One” is set to be released, but no firm date has yet been given. However it is their third studio album, the 2006, “Gang of Losers” that I want to talk about, as this was the album that caught my attention. “Gang of Losers” is not only a pretty damn good album, but is also a delightful name for an album, the touch of self loathing humor goes way beyond establishing The Dears not only as humble but also humours.

There are very humanist and hopefully themes throughout The Dears’ body of work but perhaps their message of peace and love is personified more so on “Gang of Losers” then any other album of theirs; I think so anyway. There are great songs about love persevering, prevailing over all things and bringing all of us together like “Hate Then Love.” This is not to say they are completely optimistic, there are songs that divulge into sadness and sometimes even hopelessness, the track “Fear Made the World Go ‘Round,” is particularly somber, even then there is a silver lining at the end “we’ll be o.k.”

It is all these things that make me love the song “Ballad of Human Kindness.” The lyrics speak about people struggling with poverty and homelessness and how Murray relates too, feels for, and, more or less, tortures himself being unable to do more.

I love the lyrics and the way Murray sings them. Every verse stands out to me:

“Well I thought that,
We all cared about peace,
And I thought that,
We'd all cry about love and loss,
And I thought that,
We were somehow holding on,
But I'm just standing here.”

It is very easy to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, especially when there is a geographical or social distance from those struggling and yourself. However we have reached a point in global cooperation and communication that makes it harder and harder to be ignorant about what other people are going through, yet still we are profoundly apathetic.
But there is another challenge Murray wisely identifies:

“Every time I think about,
What I can do,
It just slips away,
And every time I think that,
We can make things work,
Well it just slips away,
And I turn on the news,
And there's always some dude,
Who's relentlessly bringing me down,
Telling me how,
There are too many,
Dark people out there,
Who'll never be found.

It would be equally ignorant to turn a blind eye to all the efforts made by all the charities and individuals trying to make things better, but for a variety of reasons, as a species, we continue to be unable to conquer the problems of poverty and homelessness. Then there is the news, the centre of our social cultures, focusing and unrelentingly dwelling on our failures and perhaps even convincing us that things are hopeless.

Lastly, the final verse:

“And I can't believe the,
Vast amounts of people,
Living on the streets,
And I can't believe that,
I was almost one of them,
And I almost died,
And I can't believe that,
I haven't lifted a hand,
And I'm just standing here.
Well I'm gonna change,
I’m gonna change....”

I suspect everyone will relate on some level with personal experience or exposure to the social economical issues being described by Murray, and I suspect certain levels of sadness, fear, guilt, and other mixes of emotions will be invoked, but for me it reminds me of so many things. It reminds of the documentary I helped work on about the homeless. It reminds of my friends who were homeless and those who still are. It also reminds me just how close I came, multiple times, to being unable to pay rent, and while I am confident my parents or brothers would have bailed me out if a worst case scenario had arisen, I often thought about what could have happened if I was not as determined and financial careful as I was, it is not an exaggeration to say that I was almost one of them, and I often feel that I haven’t lifted a hand, and I would not know what or how to help even if I had the time and resources to make a meaningful difference, and I’m just standing here....

The chorus is this line repeated:

“No one should have to,
Live all of their life on their own.”

"Love" a good message.
Human beings are social creatures. Our natural culture is a tribal culture. There is something very dark about human beings forced to live as lost isolated individuals, and this is all the more confusing when it takes place within urban metropolises. In some weird ways the empowerment of individualism, while a fantastic thing, may have pushed certain members of our society into the fringe both economically and socially. The Dears’ “The Ballad of Human Kindness” is a fantastic socialist and humanist anthem about caring about one another, and I think it works particularly well because it avoids being politically dividing or judgemental, which is a very easy thing to slip into when discussing such matters. Murray owns it, he uses himself as the example and expresses how much he wants to help, and how he hopes to do more, somehow. This is a lot more convincing and encouraging then when say, millionaire Bono of U2 tells Canada it should donate more money to end hunger in Africa, hey asshole, you’re the millionaire, and it is incredibly easy to tell others to give away their money/livelihood, it is another thing altogether to self analyze oneself and lead by example.

What I said at the beginning of this review was that The Dears, and notably Murray Lightburn, focus on themes of humanism and hopefulness, but they do not shy away from the very real struggle surrounding everything. It is equal parts optimistic and realistic, and I think that is why the message The Dears put forth is so much more charming and effective then other equally kind hearted and good natured artists. This is the difference between decent music and great music and “The Ballad of Human Kindness” is a great song.

- King of Braves