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Musical Maunderings in Sunni's Salon

April 2005

There's a lot of inspirational music out there, but when I really want motivation, I turn to an under-appreciated release by Rush. Hold Your Fire offers Mission, which has uplifting music as well as lyrics ("a spirit with a vision is a dream with a mission"), and is the song from which the CD takes its name. This release also has the Rush classic Time Stand Still, which focuses on the importance of enjoying one's life. Prime Mover and Turn the Page are also songs with helpful messages for pro-freedom activists.

I called Hold Your Fire "under-appreciated" because it isn't typical of Rush's sound. Released in 1987, it's from a period where Rush had veered away from the hard-driving power trio sound that had been their trademark. Synthesizers fill much of the musical space, and Geddy Lee's voice isn't as high and screamy as it had been on previous releases; I think those differences led to many Rush fans being unpleasantly surprised by this release. If you don't like Rush because of Geddy's voice (it's a love it or hate it kind of voice, especially on their oldest works), you may find Hold Your Fire listenable. Aside from the deep personal importance this album has taken on for me, I especially like it because it stokes the fires of one's passion, while simultaneously encouraging a controlled burn -- holding your fire, indeed.

I confessed recently that I've a soft spot for romantic songs. Lately I've been indulging that fondness in my favorite way -- with Chicago. Chicago IX was the second album I bought, and I played it loudly and often. Fortunately, most of my family enjoyed it almost as much as I did, so my life was never seriously threatened. I haven't replaced that old vinyl with a disc, in part because it contained the "singles" versions of several of the songs, which were shortened for radio airplay. Much as I love a lot of Chicago's lyrics, what makes them such an enduring band is their stellar musicianship. How many other rock bands feature guitar, piano, and tasty horn licks on not just saxophone and trumpet, but trombone too? And three competent vocalists? So, no thanks to the singles versions -- bring on that full-length, enthusiastic jamming old Chicago is legendary for. Two terrific examples are Beginnings and Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is? (with the extended piano intro, of course).

Our combined collection is heavy on the older tracks, starting with Chicago Transit Authority -- their first release -- and wandering through Chicago II and V. If you don't want to buy a lot of separate studio releases, then perhaps Group Portrait is a good choice; it contains all of Chicago's hits from their best years, plus some essential non-hit tracks, such as their Introduction from the first album, and Harry Truman, from VII. To get some of their later hits and still save pennies, I'd recommend buying Group Portrait and 18 (I guess someone didn't know how to count that high in Roman numerals, or the convention was just dropped), which has You're the Inspiration and Hard Habit to Break. Be warned, though: newer Chicago material is mostly Peter Cetera-driven, and isn't as funky as the older stuff, in part because of guitarist-vocalist Terry Kath's untimely death. For wonderful, full-blown jazzy rock with heart, Chicago remains a tough act to top.

They Might Be Giants is also a band with an original sound -- eclectic and intelligent, with songs for adults and children alike. My first exposure to this "dork-rock" band came back in the 80s, with Flood. I loved it upon first listen; sadly, it was almost two decades later before I was able to wrap my scales around my own copy. We also have Apollo 18, which includes a couple of songs my children have come to clamor for: Mammal and Dinner Bell. They're good examples of why TMBG's music works for young and old: the music is catchy, and the lyrics are often fun while being informative (as a psychologist, I'm amused by the background refrain of "experimental dog, salivating dog" in Dinner Bell). Songs I like from Apollo 18 include Fingertips, Turn Around, and If I Wasn't Shy -- a light song with an interesting theme, for those paying attention to the words.

Usually I play Dial-A-Song, which is TMBG's quirky presentation of greatest hits, I suppose. It's a compilation of wackiness spanning 20 years, and includes Dr. Evil (from The Spy Who Shagged Me), Boss of Me (the theme song from the show Malcolm in the Middle), and personal favorites including Birdhouse in Your Soul, Minimum Wage, Pet Name, and I Should be Allowed to Think. Dial-A-Song arose from the same-named web site that's been offering free music online for years. TMBG continues to be ahead of the curve, offering free as well as inexpensive downloads at their own site ("Installing and Servicing Melody Since 1982"). They've also collaborated on two fun Flash animations at Experimental Film and a Strong Bad e-mail.

Look, any band that can create good lyrics that includes words like "proscenium" and "Allotheria", rhapsodize about James Ensor, and offers a fresh look at the alphabet is impossible to summarize briefly, let alone well. If you're intrigued, cruise over to Dial-A-Song and take your chances on half a dozen or so songs. Smart, funny, and highly creative, They Might Be Giants are giants when it comes to individualistic music.

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