Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Little Prog On The DVP

Somehow, the geniuses responsible for Toronto's Don Valley Parkway engineered it with an appreciation for night drivers and their car stereos. In the 80s my Bible School buddies would wax rhapsodic, recounting late night drives beneath the yellow bar-lights of the DVP while listening to Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon. Fifteen years later when I finally had a car of my own, I had to agree: no matter what was in the tape-deck, a midnight cruise on the DVP made it, in every sense of the word, a transporting experience.

It seems particularly well suited for prog rock, or anything with a spacey album concept. I haven't yet taken the new Flaming Lips album for a DVP spin, but I can certainly vouch for Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. I listened to the new Sunset Rubdown on an afternoon drive up the DVP, and liked it well enough, but I might have been completely blown away if I'd only waited a few more hours. In contrast The Resistance by Muse (A) has sunk pleasantly into my DNA thanks to the hypnotic effect of passing beneath those lights in a state of mild sleep deprivation at 120 kph.

Even without the ride, The Resistance is a great concept album. Proggy, but not esoteric, Muse muses in a Queen-Meets-Depeche-Mode manner, wholly adopting the “We Take Our Fun Seriously” approach that worked so well for their heroes. After a summer of scratching my head over the critical lauds for Sunn O))) and Dirty Projectors, I couldn't help but be blown away by the common appeal to Muse's infectious tunesmithing.

Of course, my own resistance was somewhat vulnerable after my daughters discovered Styx. When the younger asked me to add Styx to her DSi, I had to stifle a snicker. Then I remembered how Styx became, in fact, “the greatest band ever” after I heard “Renegade.” I had just turned 13.

Styx retained much of their appeal through most of my teens, but by the time they released Kilroy Was Here (A) even I was wincing. At some point in my adulthood Styx's greatest hits must have presented itself at a price I couldn't refuse, because the girls found Come Sail Away (A) in my CD stacks.

As I pored through the tracks with my daughter, I realized my ears were no longer quite so Styx-averse. I thought the early material had ambition and drive, even as it often lacked focus. In fact the titular song seemed to embody both the best and the worst of Styx: “Come Sail Away” is passionate, lush and earnest nonsense.

The tracks my daughter wanted, however, were from the Paradise Theater segment. Paradise was an album I initially admired for its grandiose packaging. Portrayed on the front of the jacket is Chicago's Paradise Theater in its original glory; its later crumbling facade is on the rear. The songs were purportedly written with a unifying theme of glorious promise and inevitable decay. The vinyl itself was laser-etched with the Paradise marquee, which could only be seen when you held the record to the light. Throw in some nefarious backmasking and this was clearly the pop music equivalent of an anarchist's bomb.

Or not. My daughter requested “Rockin' the Paradise,” but even she is prone to mocking its flourishes (the over-heated piano glissando, the “whatcha doin', whatcha doin'?” chorus). Many of the songs seem forced into the thematic mold, and none moreso than the album's conclusion: “The Best Of Times” (“are when I'm alone with you”). On the other hand, I've yet to hear an ode to cocaine that doesn't induce a “There but for the Grace of God” shiver, which “Snowblind” certainly delivers. And “Too Much Time On My Hands” is just plain solid: the ticking clock motif, the feverish delusions of grandeur, the self-laceration and impotence. Throw in a meaty guitar solo and I have to admit: this song just plain rocks.

Not that I've got Paradise Theater, or any other Styx, cued up for my next late-night ride out to Toronto — that slot is reserved for Embryonic (A). But now I'm wondering: are there routes through other cities with a similarly narcotic effect on the driver? And is there any way a band could reserve this route for their harsher critics?

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