Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Request Line: “Send Me on My Way,” “Changes,” “Tightrope,” “The Spirit of Radio”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 25, 2010

Reader Ken Kralie writes:

I’ve been a long time reader of your blog, and I really like the new request line thing you’ve been doing so I figured I would throw my suggestions out there.

You normally do four songs. But I came up with five. So you can pick and choose the four you want to talk about.

Rusted Root – Send Me On My Way
Yes – Changes
Janelle Monáe – Tightrope
Toy Matinee – The Ballad of Jenny Ledge (there is a music video for this song but this clip has better audio)
Rush – The Spirit of Radio

Liking the four for five thing. Hate to balk on the most obscure of the bunch, but I’ve listened to “Jenny Ledge” a handful of times and still can’t pin down a conclusive opinion on it, so I’m afraid I’m using my free pass on that one. Onwards and upwards…

My younger cousin recently showed my family a film he made of his immediate family’s vacation to Africa–a relatively professional-looking montage of sweeping vistas and funny-looking giraffes and whatnot. It was set to two songs–the theme to the Lion King and “Send Me on My Way.” For someone in their mid-20s (shudder) like myself, these would be head-smackingly obvious choices–the former is anyone of our generation’s immediate pop culture reference point for African music, and the latter is the only hit song of the 90s with both a flute solo and that scrape-y instrument from the beginning of “Gimme Shelter” whose name I can never remember. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to see that they had trickled down to my younger cousins, especially the latter–they’re a fairly pop-literate bunch, but endurance was not Rusted Root’s strong suit, and I was starting to worry that memories of the H.O.R.D.E. generation would die off with me and my friends. (Wikipedia tells me it was used in the movie Ice Age–this seems like the most logical explanation for it being on their radar.)

“Send Me on My Way” is a song guaranteed to make me feel ten years old again, excited to see the movie Mathilda in theaters, just about any time I listen. Not just because I was, obviously, ten years old when first exposed to it, but because the collective emotional intelligence of Rusted Root seems to have stayed permanently at about that level themselves. I’d never seen the video before writing this article, but it’s appropriately brain-damaged–a bunch of flighty, filthy-looking hippies galavanting out in the wilderness, not a care in the world and no apparent back-up plan should the weather turn quickly inhospitable. Lyric sites tell me that the first (and last) lines of the song are “I would like to reach out my hand / How may see you / How may tell you to run / You know what they say about the young,” but I’ll forever swear that it’s actually “I would like to reach out my hand / Ohm ‘bey say / Ohm ‘bey tell you to run / Uhhbibidisay, bibidiyah.” I’m not even sure which makes more sense.

Not that I’m complaining. Stupidity to this degree is often tolerable and occasionally preferable in the purest of pop music, and if “Send Me on My Way” didn’t want to make you go poncho-shopping and hitchhike to the nearest open plain in the mid-90s, then it’s entirely likely that no song would. I know every word to the thing–syllabically, if not literally–and I can’t deny the certain amount of idiot-wisdom contained in a line like “I would like to hold my little hand.” Singer Michael Glabicki (whoo, trivia) is certainly a talented vocalist and all, and he packs enough power and technique into the nonsense lyrics that they’re never less than a blast to attempt to sing along to. Hey, I even like the flute solo. (C’mon, it’d been nearly a decade since “You Can Call Me Al!” Way too long for one of the fundamental rock and roll instruments to sit on the shelf.)

Forgot how awful follow-up “Ecstasy” was, though. Video looks like it could’ve been made by MGMT too, which I don’t think I mean as a compliment.

Ahhh, 80s Yes. On the surface, I’m still not sure how or why prog and new wave should have anything to do with one another as hybrid genres, but between Yes’s 90125 (which I still haven’t heard all of–shameful, I’m sure), King Crimson’s Red, some of the later Police stuff and the work of another band I’m talking about later in this article, the two made for oddly complementary bedfellows. There is less than zero fucking with “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” of course–one of the great riffs and best coke-fueled music videos of the 80s (and there was no shortage of either that decade, to be sure). “Leave It” is also fun, no doubt, and “Changes,” which I don’t think I’d heard before and is probably the most traditionally wonky of the bunch, is fairly worthy company as well.

I’m a huge sucker for that intro, of course–manic xylophone and guitar picking in–what is that, 13/8 time–until the entire band jumps in, subtly introducing the foreboding synths and layered guitar lines that continue throughout the song.  Every self-respecting prog outfit should have at least one “haha, we can play this and you almost definitely can’t, loser” moment per song, and I feel dizzy even contemplating attempting any of these parts myself, but as per the song’s strictly new pop-friendly rules, it doesn’t last too long, and flows seamlessly into the song proper. The rest sounds more by-the-numbers late-70s / early-80s arena rock–halfway between Kansas’s “Carry on Wayward Son” and The Scorpions’ “No One Like You,” basically–and the lyrics are predictably whatever. The thing feels big, does enough to justify its six-minute running time, and gives you another taste of that fantastic intro before checking out. Not a classic, but no particular complaints on my end.

Producer Trevor Horn really has to be counted as one of the unsung heroes of modern pop music. This album, ABC’s The Look of Love, “Video Killed the Radio Star,” (Who’s Afraid Of) The Art of Noise!, Malcolm McLaren’s “Buffalo Gals,” Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax”–who had a stronger resume the first half of the 80s than this guy? And that doesn’t even even get to t.A.T.u. and “Kiss From a Rose.”

Truthfully, I’m not sure I understand the appeal of this woman. I mean, I get it conceptually–she’s a unique personality and a good dancer and what she appears to be selling musically (thinking-man’s old-school soul with a spirit of experimentation), it’s understandable that a lot of people would be buying. But the songs just kind of leave me cold, “Tightrope” especially. The verses are distractingly monotonous, which would be OK with a knockout chorus, but “Whether you’re high or low / You gotta tip on the tightrope”? Eh. I’m just not feeling it on any level–even as homespun soul wisdom, it feels marginal at best. And the Big Boi verse, pretty much the definition of phoned-in, just gives me another example of how far my opinion of Sir Lucious Leftfoot continues to drift in the wrong direction from the critical consensus. (I will say that I do really like the outro section, with the ukulele and that bendy guitar hook. That’s pretty cool, but it’s not worth sitting through the rest for.)

The next single, “Cold War,” I can get a little more into, but even that, I’m sorta perplexed by. When it comes for Janelle to have her little “Nothing Compares 2 U” moment at the end of the video, I’m just like Really? I dunno. I’m not on the same wavelength as this music.

Needless to say, this music, I am on the same wavelenth as. You could argue about whether or not “Spirit of Radio” is the best Rush song (I went with “YYZ” for my abortive 100 Years, 100 Songs project) but I doubt you could argue against this being the greatest single-song encapsulation of the band’s appeal–the virtuosity, the songcraft, the emotional explosiveness. The latter is too often ignored when discussing the band’s appeal–unlike the often clinical-sounding going-through-the-motions of their left-brained prog-rock brethren, Rush’s music often sounds like it’s bursting out of them in fits of over-anxious adolescent enthusiasm. (Yeah, gross, sorry.) The fact that they’re able to capture that unrestrained feeling without sacrificing anything in the way of technique or precision is what makes them one of the great classic rock bands.

“Spirit of Radio” is no doubt the definitive example of this, evident from the first millisecond that Alex Lifeson’s machine-gun guitar riff comes ripping through the speakers.  It’s visceral, it’s exciting, it sounds fucking phenomenal. And even though the song settles down from there, it never lets up on that gut level. In one of the first articles I wrote for this blog, I talked about how Rush was in essence a power-pop band as much as a prog-rock one, and the main verse riff for “Spirit of Radio” is Lifeson at his shimmery, Chiltonian best, aided by Geddy Lee’s predictably impassioned raving on the titular subject. Really, the very fact that Rush would write a song about the majesty of the FM dial is as good a demonstration of what sets them apart from their peers as anything–even during the days when they were at their poppiest, can you imagine Yes or King Crimson ever writing an ode to the pure joy of flipping around on the dial? No, they were probably too busy setting up their thousand-dollar surround-sound systems in their mansions so they could listen to John Cale and Ornette Coleman in peace, unfettered by the mainstream distractions of the outside world. (I know. I shouldn’t generalize. Maybe they were big Olivia Newton-John fans too. Hell, Robert Fripp made an album with Darryl Hall once.)

The song spends a lot of time leaping around from there, vascilating wildly between verses, choruses, bridges, breakdowns and solos, all without missing a beat and all without even pushing the runtime over five minutes. The entire thing is held together by its overflowing affection for the subject matter, intoxicating in its righteousness and sincerity. Seriously, this thing makes me want to cry sometimes–lines like “One likes to believe in the freedom of music” and “Hit the open road / There is magic at your fingers” they just strike right to the core of the feelings we all have about the power of great music, and the endless sense of discovery and wonder inherent in the capabilities of radio. You’d have to be a hard-hearted sort–or just another one of those Cale/Coleman types–not to feel that just a little bit.

Probably one of the best rock songs ever written on the subject of music. (My friend Leslie complained that I didn’t use enough superlatives in her recent Request Line article, so there you go, Leslie. Semi-superlative, anyway.)

2 Responses to “Request Line: “Send Me on My Way,” “Changes,” “Tightrope,” “The Spirit of Radio””

  1. Keith said

    I promised if I was going to give you more requests they’d have a theme. Well here it is: synthpop artists either before or after their career peaks. I gave you five so you can choose four. We’ve got Human League and OMD on the way down, Ministry (yes, that Ministry) and Michael Cretu (pre-Enigma) on the way up, and members of New Order, Pet Shop Boys and the Smiths finding a comfortable middle ground. Hope you have fun with this one!

    Electronic – Getting Away With It

    The Human League – Human

    Ministry – I Wanted to Tell Her

    Michael Cretu – Samurai

    OMD – Walking on the Milky Way

  2. Ken Kralie said

    Hey, thanks for doing my picks! “Jenny Ledge” is a personal favorite of mine but it doesn’t really hold much of any wider significance so I kinda figured that would be the one you’d skip. No big.
    Maybe eventually I’ll pick some more songs. But it seems the lineup is rather long so I’ll be content with these four for now. Thanks!

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