Spin Control

March 20, 2007


Rush, "Snakes & Arrows" (Anthem/Atlantic)

Critic's rating: 3 and a half stars

As longtime fans well know, the long-running Canadian progressive-metal trio Rush nearly came to an end in the late '90s, when Neil Peart suffered the losses of his wife to cancer and his 19-year-old daughter to a car crash. The lyricist and virtuosic drummer found himself by writing several cathartic books, including two chronicling his Beat-odyssey travels across North America by motorcycle, and the band rebounded with "Vapor Trails" in 2002, which rocked harder than most late-era Rush but was still a far cry from the band's best. The group's 18th studio album therefore comes as a pleasant surprise, finding Rush recapturing a measure of the power it had in its prime, and debuting last week at No. 3.

To say that Peart, bassist-vocalist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson have reconnected with a more old-school sound means different things to different fans: There is none of the dense conceptual and musical intricacy of the band at its most progressive, circa my personal favorites "2112" (1976) and "Hemispheres" (1978). But as the more streamlined and melodic Rush goes, "Snakes & Arrows" is easily the equal of FM-radio favorites "Permanent Waves" (1980) or "Moving Pictures" (1981).

Lee has found a strong mid-ground between the early days' Donald Duck-on-helium yelp and the later, throatier baritone; he and Lifeson are playing with considerable fire and invention, especially on the three stunning instrumentals ("The Main Monkey Business," "Malignant Narcissism" and the lovely acoustic tune "Hope"); Peart remains a force of nature as a drummer, and in place of the academic, philosophical and sometimes inscrutable lyrics of the '90s, there's a plainspoken humanism that is more heartfelt and direct.

Driven by some of the group's strongest melodies, lyrics such as "One day I feel like I'm ahead of the wheel / And the next it's rolling over me" (from the single "Far Cry," which, like the equally effective "The Way the Wind Blows," contemplates a world turned upside-down by terrorists) and "Our better natures seek elevation / A refuge from the coming night / No one gets to their heaven without a fight" (from "Armor and Sword," which, like the equally strong "Faithless," espouses self-reliance over blind faith) combines to create some of the smartest and best music the band has ever given us.

Tori Amos, "American Doll Posse" (Epic)

Critic's rating: 3 and a half stars

From David Bowie and Peter Gabriel to Natalie Merchant and Tori Amos at an earlier point in her career (on 2001's "Strange Little Girls"), some of rock's most distinctive singers and songwriters have used the conceptual device of presenting an album written in the voices of fictional characters to breathe new life into their work. In keeping with her flamboyant, over-the-top personality, Amos takes this idea to extremes on her ninth studio effort, a sprawling, 23-track double album that finds her portraying five different characters, each illustrating an aspect of modern femininity, and all complete with their own wardrobes and blogs.

There is street-punk Pip, hippie artiste Clyde, glamorous photographer Isabel, divaesque Santa and Tori herself, appearing here in the role of a voodoo priestess (you can tell because she's choking a rooster on the album cover). Following all of this can be confusing, but you don't really have to in order to enjoy the disc, because all of these women are really all different aspects of Amos, who is writing stronger and more inspired songs than at any point since her first three albums, including 1992's brilliant "Little Earthquakes."

Amos' more politically provocative lyrics have sometimes been overshadowed by her New Age/floating-with-the-faeries tendencies, but here, she is focused, poignant, angry, very funny and extremely relevant. Just witness the opening assault on the President, "Yo George" ("This just the Madness of King George / Well you have the whole nation / On all fours") or the climax of the rollicking "Big Wheel," which finds Amos howling, "I am a M-I-L-F / Don't you forget," reclaiming a word from male-targeted porn sites for sexy, middle-age moms everywhere.

Produced by the pseudonymous "Mac Aladdin" (reportedly Amos' husband, guitarist and sound engineer Mark Hawley), "American Doll Posse" is a far cry from the artist's "just a girl and her piano" mode, with some of the hardest-hitting, most glam-rock sounds since her first, brief incarnation as the leader of the forgotten hair-metal band Y Kant Tori Read. The driving guitars and pounding, Led Zeppelin-style drums raise the anthemic choruses to new levels, and help create an album that is as rousing and as much fun as a knee to the groin of the patriarchy has ever been.