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Reviewed by David Medsker
Indeed, the band’s fortunes in the last year or so have become inexplicably bright. Trey Parker and Matt Stone created a "South Park" cartoon of the boys playing "Tom Sawyer" to serve as the opening for Rush’s Snakes & Arrows tour, and the band’s music plays a prominent role in the comedy "I Love You, Man." (It’s the first time they have appeared in a movie, if you can believe that.) "Entertainment Weekly" interviewed Geddy Lee for the first time in, well, ever, and put a shout-out to them the following week in their weekly hot/not column, curiously called the Bullseye. Combined with the fact that they were once again passed over for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, it’s safe to say that, for the first time in ages, Rush has a Q factor.
And would you look at that, Atlantic has released a new singles compilation smack dab in the middle of the revival. No fools, those Atlantic people, on a number of levels. Retrospective 3 (Mercury released the first two Retrospective volumes when the band’s catalog was remastered in 1997) is the first Rush compilation to heavily favor one group of albums over another; Presto (1989), Roll the Bones (1991) and Counterparts (1993) account for nine of the album’s 14 tracks, while Test for Echo (1996), Vapor Trails (2002) and Snakes & Arrows (2007) contribute the remaining five. Even though the tracks are not in chronological order, you can actually hear the seismic shift in the band’s songwriting from the first three albums to the second, as they discarded their pop sensibilities (along with the keyboards) for a grittier, more muscular approach. It is not a coincidence that their streak of consecutive gold records ended around the same time.
There are few bands in rock that have adapted to their surroundings better than Rush has. You can hear elements of the Police throughout 1982’s Signals. They brought in Aimee Mann to sing on a track just as the modern rock scene was taking root. When the world was still knock-kneed for grunge, Rush scored a #1 on the Rock chats with the D-tuned "Stick It Out" (which is strangely absent here). Through all the changes, though, the band’s signature stamp remained at the core of their music. Beginning with Test for Echo, however, something changed; their music became denser and decidedly less melodic. Did they stop trying to adapt, since rock radio was all but dead and there was no point in coming up with a hit single, or did they just hit a dry spell? Could be both, could be neither, but the fact that the band plays virtually nothing from Echo and Vapor Trails in their live shows in order to dust off songs from Counterparts or Grace Under Pressure is a far more stinging indictment than anything this writer could offer on the subject. Atlantic was smart to minimize their presence here.
Having said that, they could have done a better job of representing the earlier albums. The inclusion of Counterparts instrumental "Leave That Thing Alone" and Vapor Trails album track "Earthshine" at the expense of "Show Don’t Tell" and "Stick It Out," both #1 songs on the Rock charts, is simply inexcusable. A previously unavailable live version of "Ghost of a Chance" is a nifty addition, but again, not at the expense of the aforementioned songs. The end result is a good but far from definitive collection of Rush’s late-period work, and with the band’s recent return to the spotlight, the next Roll the Bones could be lurking on the horizon. We should be so lucky.