Listening Back – Herbie Hancock’s “Sextant” (1973)

Since becoming the pianist for Miles Davis’ Second Quintet in the early 60s, Herbie Hancock spent much of the decade mastering a mixture of modal and freeform jazz, until Davis split the group up in search of new sounds and genres. Hancock, too, had already been branching in his own direction, becoming a bandleader on albums like “Maiden Voyage” (1965) and “Speak Like a Child” (1968)… but then Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” (1970) dropped, and jazz was slammed right in the center, fracturing off into all kinds of musical directions. Hancock himself became interested in electronic music, leading him to form his band Mwandishi. They would release three albums together: a self-titled fusion jazz LP (1971), the more electronic / avant-garde “Crossings” (1972), and perhaps the most striking album of Hancock’s career, “Sextant” (1973).

On the album we have Herbie Hancock on piano and several synthesizers, Billy Hart on drums, Buster Williams on bass, Scatalie Cassidy on trumpet and horn, Julian Priester on trombone, Bennie Maupin on several different reeds, and Patrick Gleeson on additional synths. The album hits 39 minutes in just three tracks, so without further ado:

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Opening the record with “Rain Dance” (9m16s) was a pretty bold move, as it’s by far the most experimental and spaced out of the three. The first couple minutes are only rhythmically held together by a synth loop that gives the impression of raindrops. There’re strange ‘data-stream’ sounds looped under much of the track as well, interrupted by bursts of energy from the drums and horns. It’s like a very loose, dancey amalgamation of man and machine, a spinning collision by the past and future. It’s by far the most inaccessible track here, but even then the challenge presented to the listener is balanced out by the fact that it manages to keep itself tied down before it gets too spacey. It’s as if it were a warm up for the more cohesive sound the rest of the album brings—and yet it still feels like the future of music that only Hancock can hear.

“Hidden Shadows” (10m11s) could easily fit into Hancock’s next album, the funk-drive “Head Hunters” (1973). The track revolves around a heavy-groove held powerfully down by synth, bass and drums, while the horns and additional synths solo over it. The odd time signature of the groove (19/8 ?!) keeps the song rolling along with varied momentum, yet it’s always moving nonetheless. You can hear the intensity periodically swell, just waiting to burst, until finally in the last few minutes things explode / fall apart for just a moment before it falls back into a suddenly mellow take on the groove, before fading away. It’s a very fun track that shows real chemistry between the band—easily the best track to just jump into.

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The final track, “Hornets” (19m35s) falls somewhere between the last two tracks in terms of genre and style. There’re strange kazoo/mellotron instrumentals here that give the image of buzzing hornets (hence the name), the bass and drums lay down a fast but simple groove while the horn section sounds as if they’re taking swats at the hornets to drive them away. It’s not powerful in the way “Hidden Shadows” has the band punching together, but it’s the most high-energy song on the record, though everyone seems to be running in their own direction, rubber-banding back to the rhythm section eventually. There are many strong sections of “Hornets” but they don’t really justify how long the jam stretches on for—it’s a fine song but not as strong as it’s predecessors.

Herbie Hancock’s “Sextant” sees the composer treading where few men have gone before, leading to some of the most challenging yet rewarding sounds to come out of (let’s say) the autumnal years of jazz. It caught Hancock right before he opted for a more commercially viable funk-fusion sound, and serves as a showcase for his creativity with his newly found love for electronic music. It might not be the most consistently-great album in his library, but it leaves perhaps the deepest impression.

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Listening Back – Siamese Dream

The Smashing Pumpkins’ debut album “Gish” (1991) was released just a few months before Nirvana’s “Nevermind”, which drastically changed the future of Alternative Rock in the United States. Alt-Rock being a somewhat vague term, The Pumpkins’ sound differed significantly from Kurt Cobain’s songwriting, yet that intimidating bar was set high nevertheless—not to mention Butch Vig, the man who produced “Nevermind”, was working closely with The Pumpkins. “Gish” had found warm reception and minor success, especially with a younger audience, so the followup album was expected to do great things. All of this burden wore heavily on Billy Corgan, guitarist/vocalist/mastermind behind the band. The result was “Siamese Dream” (1993), a less spiritual, more dark, angsty amalgamation of any number of musical sources.

The Smashing Pumpkins’ lineup at the time was as they had been from their start: Billy Corgan (lead guitar, vocals), James Iha (rhythm guitar), D’arcy Wretzky (bass), and Jimmy Chamberlin (drums). Though the story changes officially, it’s said that Corgan would end up doing most of the guitar and bass parts in the recording—a testament to his infamous ‘control-freak’ reputation. That being considered, it’s interesting to hear just how much of a solo-effort Siamese Dream is; it seems to be the personal intimacy from songwriters like Corgan and Kurt Cobain that appeal so well to their listeners.

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The album starts with “Cherub Rock”, a kind of dreamy, prog-rock song that calls out the music industry. The chorus asks “Who wants honey / As long as there’s some money”, with Corgan going on to admit “I know, I know, I know / Should have listened when I’m told.” As what is supposedly the last song written for the album, it’s a thankfully lighter tone to begin on, while keeping the frustration that went into making it all.

Corgan’s voice has always been this charming, strange mixture of husky echoes and throaty screeches, which in the case of the shoegazing “Quiet”, fits in perfectly as another instrument amidst a wall of fuzzy power chords. Lyrically, it’s a pretty literal cry for help, sounding as if coming from an ignored child.

“Today” has lived on as arguably the most popular single from Siamese Dream—and from the 90s as a whole. It’s the most deceptively soft tracks on the album, masking suicidal thoughts behind a sweetly ironic chant of “Today is the greatest day I’ve ever know”. The verses are light and sparse before kicking into the distorted and heavy chorus—a very Pixies-esque technique that was used liberally in Nirvana’s breakthrough work.

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“Hummer” is a 7-minute track that passes through multiple guitar progressions, all the while anchored by a very dream-pop verse. It seems to not so much summarize everything Corgan writes about as it does throw them all into question for the audience, like a stream of consciousness that covers everything from body image, love, disenchantment, and depression. The advanced playing here really distinguishes The Pumpkins from many alt-rockers, who typically get a bad wrap as unskilled or at least ungraceful with their instruments.

“Rocket” is a song about trying to let go of the pressures that surrounded Corgan, seemingly through the means of just becoming numb to everything; “Consume my love, devour my hate”.

“Disarm” is a pseudo-solo acoustic pop ballad, that harkens back to Corgan’s (or his speaker’s) lonely childhood, and how it’s affected him to this day—contrasting a “little boy” with the ‘killer’ in him. Though it’s a quieter and more personal song, the use of a string arrangement over the chorus and the constant bell-ringing backbeat give it a sort of grandiose importance.

From this point onwards, the album takes a generally softer, more experimental route with each song—not all of which pay off as well as some of the earlier tracks, but which give the album a kind of longevity. “Soma” is this very gentle, psychedelic rock with Corgan’s crooning initially only back by slow chords, before kicking into the full band, and the strongest guitar solo on the album.

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“Geek USA”’s verses take some hints of metal, with some particularly impressive drumming from the criminally underrated Chamberlin. There’s a brief respite in the middle, before the guitar solo shreds in—Corgan himself has referred to the song as a kind of compression of “Gish” into one song.

“Mayonnaise” is another shoegazing track; in what could easily have been the most melodramatic track, Corgan and Vig’s production subtleties turned it into perhaps the songs strength. The feedback on Corgan’s guitar creates this charming little whistling between it all, as Corgan again explores his own psyche: “Out of hand and out of season / Out of love and out of feeling”.

“Spaceboy” seems to be a tribute to David Bowie, both in style and substance, with Corgan even namedropping “Mr. Jones” (Bowie’s real surname). The string arrangement playing under the song sounds like a prototype for the pseudo-orchestra instrumentations that would shine in The Pumpkin’s next album, “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” (1995).

“Silverfuck” is the album’s last chance to vent any and all excess angst, in a nearly 9-minute track that peels back several layers of progressions before hitting an ambient, minimalist rock bottom, slowly and screechingly climbing it’s way back up for the song’s distorted and frayed climax.

“Sweet Sweet” is a quick little love poem, complete with vocal harmonizing between the band and a nice little melodic riff—it’s placement in the album between the final push and the windown is strange, however.

The album ends with the poppy love song “Luna”, suggesting a sort of ironic swapping of thematic focus after “Silverfuck” seemingly drained the band. The album ends with Corgan serenading the moon with his love; simultaneously a “good night” to the album and a foreshadowing of the spacey-love songs that would comprise much of their next album.

Billy Corgan is nothing if not ambitious with the scope of his vision, even if that vision is a clouded version of his own downfall. Siamese Dream is jammed with angst, frustration, and often hopelessness, conveyed through every alt-rock genre from grunge to prog-rock to shoegazing—and it all draws the listener in wonderfully.

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Listening Back – Black Sabbath (1970)

*Note this is about the North American release of the LP.

In his 2011 memoir “Iron Man”, Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi detailed how he lost the tips of the middle fingers of his left hand on his last day working at a sheet metal factory; determined to continue playing guitar, he fashioned some plastic fingertips (which he still keeps to this day), but it still wasn’t enough. Iommi then started using lighter strings with lower and lower tunings, the looseness of which gives his guitar playing that deep, heavy sound. And thus heavy metal was born—depending on who you ask of course. There are some who cite Led Zeppelin as an earlier influence, and perhaps that makes sense—Iommi and John Bonham were apparently best friends growing up.

Tony Iommi, Bill Ward (on the drums), Geezer Butler (bass) and Ozzy Osbourne (vocals) first formed in 1968 under the moniker “Earth”, a heavy blues-rock band. The name never stuck, and in ’69 Butler suggested the name ‘Black Sabbath’ after the 1963 Boris Karloff movie of the same name. It was be Butler (with help from Osbourne) who was fascinated with the dark, occult imagery that the band—not to mention the entire metal subculture—would become famous for. On October 16, 1969, the band would record their first album in a single session; their eponymous debut “Black Sabbath” would be released February of 1970.

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Admittedly, much of the album doesn’t reach the heaviness of their later work—in fact I’d defined most of the album as heavy blues, like say Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut…That is except for the first track:

“Black Sabbath” opens with a distant church bell ringing through pouring rain and thunder. Then comes ‘the Tritone’, a.k.a. ‘the devil’s interval’, or ‘diabolus in musica’ (‘devil in music’). It’s a three note riff that persists through most of the song, but to great effect. It’s a technique even used in classical music to invoke a feeling of terror or dread—not as ‘catchy’ as some of Iommi’s later riffs, but an iconic opening statement. Osbourne moans: “What is this that stands before me? / Figure in black which points at me”, apparently referring to a shadowy figure Butler once saw at the foot of his bed when he was most invested in studying the occult. The experience shook him out of those interests, but that didn’t stop them from bleeding into the lyrics of the entire album. Despite the Satanic allegations the band infamously earned, the song is more like a doomed pariah crying out for mercy and help from God. The song could easily be seen as gimmicky out of context, what with the sound effects throughout, but considering the vast legacy it began, it holds legitimate historical importance.

“The Wizard” would feel right at home in Led Zeppelin’s setlist; a harmonica, pounding drums, and lyrics inspired by Lord of the Rings’ Gandalf. It has heavy, headbanging guitar riffs, which are given that extra punch by the rhythm section playing under its lead. After the gloominess of the first track, this song assures the listener that it’s all in good fun.

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Next is an almost 10-minute track in four parts: “Wasp / Behind the Wall of Sleep / Bassically / N.I.B.”. (Note that the original European record was marked separately: track 3 being “Behind the Wall of Sleep” and track 4 being “N.I.B.”). The first half is more of a blues jam, with ‘Wasp’ probably referring to the buzzing tremolo of Iommi’s guitar. This fades into about a minute-long bass solo, which in turn jumps into ‘N.I.B.’, a love song from the perspective of Lucifer—a sort of twist delivered near the end of the song.

Side two of the European record begins with a cover of Crow’s “Evil Woman”—it’s from here that the versions of the album become markedly different. As mentioned earlier, we’ll move on with the North American release:

“Wicked World” begins with a pretty jazzy drum groove with light little guitar licks thrown on top. This springs into a style more akin to the rest of the album, followed by the band’s first political lyrics (a theme that would take up most of their following album, “Paranoid”, released later in 1970). They criticize how politicians “can put a man on the moon quite easy / while people here on Earth are dying of old diseases.” It doesn’t get too preachy or timestamped by a specific topic, and is bisected with the most ‘shreddy’ guitar solo on the album.

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The album ends with the three part song, “A Bit of Finger / Sleeping Village / Warning”. “Sleeping Village” is a small, poetic verse backed by a somewhat out of place Jew’s harp. “A Bit of Finger”, most likely named for Iommi’s lost digits, is couple minutes of instrumental jamming, leading into the final song, “Warning”. It’s probably the most generic-blues song of the bunch, with a lot of the usual ‘unrequited love’ images—“’cause there’s iron in my heart / I just can’t keep from cryin’.” It’s not the band’s usual fare, but thankfully it leads into a heavy jam session, returning again to the final verse in the final moments of the album.

“Black Sabbath” is definitely a fun album, with a majority of the record being heavy-blues jamming mixed with slick solos and silly fantasy lyrics. It’s the darker material that really stands out in the album’s legacy, with the title track in particular bringing a revolutionary sound that would quickly pioneer the heavy metal genre. It’s not as face-melting or memorable as their follow up album, “Paranoid”, but it’s a great debut nonetheless.

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Listening Back – Bad Brains (1982)

Forming in 1976 under the name “Mind Power”, the Washington D.C. based band pulled from a number of musical genres, namely the complex tempos of jazz and the speed and intensity of rock. By 1977, it seemed only inevitable that the young men would catch the fire of punk rock coming overseas from the U.K.—yet at the same time, their attention was caught by the Rastafari movement being spearheaded by Bob Marley. Never to be limited to a single definition, the band dubbed themselves “Bad Brains”, and caught the attention of D.C.’s youth with their unlikely match of reggae and punk. For the first time in punk history you had thoroughly competent musicians, playing riffs more complex and beats faster than anything the scene had yet heard—some would even call them the creators of American hardcore.

By the time of the release of their eponymous debut album in 1982, Bad Brains had been allowed a few years to gain both the attention of fans and notoriety of the press (“Banned in D.C. with a thousand more places to go.”). The simple fact of a group of young black men emerging as prominent figures in the punk scene was enough to turn a few heads, but what was even stranger was the spiritual nature singer H.R. (Human Rights) was taking the group. Musically and lyrically, listeners were challenged to see outside the rather rigid boxes many subcultures were closing themselves into by the early 80s. There’s the usual themes of antiestablishment and anti-authority, but they make sure to urge “No Fuss No Fight”. Despite the blitzing speed and defiance in their music, songs like “Attitude” reinforce ‘positive mental attitude’, the yin to the angry yang of punk that continues to halve much of the genre today. Throughout the album there’s a sense of duality, exploding into outrage at the injustice of the world before quelling it with soothing thoughts; “I gotta keep my PMA.”

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The album clocks in at thirty-four minutes across fifteen tracks, three of which are slow-tempo reggae songs (“Jah Calling”, “Leaving Babylon”, and “I Luv I Jah”) peppered throughout the album. It’s these tracks, running at four to six minutes each that make up the bulk of the album; the punk tracks are the typical one to two minutes. The contrast is no doubt done in an attempt to unify the otherwise diverse cultures of punk and reggae. And really the difference is all in the way the lyrics—which are indistinguishable between genres—are crooned or yelped by H.R. It’s hilarious to picture their live shows being suddenly slowed to a crawl by the reggae tracks, but judging by their lasting popularity, broadening their audience’s interests seems to have worked.

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What’s most impressive is the way the band adapts so fluidly between styles, often blurring genres from instrument to instrument. You have the distorted yet undeniably rockabilly guitar (played by ‘Dr. Know’) on punk tracks like “I” and “Big Take Over”; the fuzzy marching-band drum grooves (played by H.R.’s younger brother Earl Hudson) kick off tracks like “Right Brigade”; the standout bass riffs (played by Darryl Jenifer) that breathe an almost funky life into the reggae tracks. Among their contemporaries who tended to be limited to alterations of fuzzy power chords and lone drum grooves, Bad Brains’ sheer musical talent really shines.

It’s honestly difficult to pick out any weak tracks on the record—even the reggae tracks, which threaten to break the overall tone, are good songs in their own right, and better round out the lasting impression the album leaves. Releasing as a successor to punk rock it must have sounded out of place, but seeing the musically diverse East-coast hardcore movement it helped begin, “Bad Brains” is smart, fun, and effortlessly relaxed and restless.

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Is “Exotica” Culturally Insensitive?

             Finding an older audience during the 1950s and 60s, Exotica was an American genre of music that branched off of Jazz and used certain combinations of instruments and effects to ‘transport the listener’ to various idealized landscapes, usually for a cheap and sometimes erotic thrill. The name is said to have come from Martin Denny’s 1957 album, also titled “Exotica”, in which Denny and his band performed songs written by other notable composers of films and later exotica music. It certainly came at the right time—World War II had just reminded the world how small it was, and many Americans were left with a longing for adventure and travel, though they lacked the means (and perhaps the true desire) to actually go to these exotic locales. Like their audience, the artist’s visions of these places—ranging from savage African jungles to the lost city of Atlantis—were based purely off of fantasy. And though Exotica has long since fallen out of the public eye, does it have a place in the modern, closely connected world, or would it just be discarded as ‘racist’?

Without a doubt, something like Exotica wouldn’t exist today, at least not with the gall to imagine ‘real’ locations through a series of stereotypes, and a lot of that can be attributed to the fact that the wide world is no longer a ‘fantasy’, but very close and very real. The inclusion of actual fantastical settings could be taken either as a means of defending the entire genre as harmless imagination, or as white-musicians reducing cultures to silly characterizations—a means for ‘armchair’ travelers to compartmentalize the world around them through easy-listening. This seems a bit condemning to what should really be judged on a record-to-record basis. If anything, the artists behind these works were more misguided than hateful. To listen deeper, let’s look at one of the most prominent musicians behind Exotica:

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Les Baxter (1922-1966) was a musician who arranged and composed experimental and ‘worldly’ albums long before and after the Exotica fad lasted. His earliest album, “Music Out of the Moon” (1947) was a soft-jazz record underlying a spacey theremin (incidentally, it was among the music Neil Armstrong brought and played during the Moon landing of 1969). By 1956, Baxter started composing the soundtracks to numerous films across every genre: “Pharaoh’s Curse” (1957), an Egyptian-themed horror film; “The Invisible Boy” (1957), a space-set science fiction film; “The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold” (1958), a Western. Baxter has a very prolific and long-lasting career containing dozens of soundtracks and albums, yet they all aim for a certain immersive and transporting experience for the listener. It was his 1951 record, “Ritual of the Savage”, that proved most influential on Exotica as a genre.

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Immediately, the title is problematic, but let’s put that on hold. The music itself is mostly general swing jazz mingling with congas, marimbas, and other instruments that might come to mind when one thinks of African jungles, with the occasional bird call or tribal chant thrown in for good measure. Politics aside, the music is cheesy, but Les Baxter knows how to compose good music! He does specialize in easy listening after all. Title aside, the album is pretty tasteful in it’s content, at least for the purpose of the music: to provide white suburban folk with a taste of the taboo. Is Baxter’s character and integrity to be judged by his complying to an audience? Judging by his massive and diverse catalogue, Baxter wasn’t just ‘cashing in’ on a trend, but rather showed genuine interest in creating emotive and picturesque music. Returning to the questionable terminology in Exotica song and album titles, perhaps this reflects more poorly on society in the 50s and 60s as a whole rather than the individuals; perhaps Baxter is simply giving his musical interpretation of the romanticized versions of Africa and other oft-dreamt about places, as opposed to the real place.

Perhaps the problems one could take away from Exotica comes from the misconception that Africa and the ‘Oriental East’ belong alongside the likes of the Moon and the bottom of the Ocean—to be fair all were about as equally distant from the average listener of Exotica. As a slight remedy, some choose to limit the genre of Exotica to only include real-world locations, however fictionalized. What it ultimately comes down to is the responsibility the listener must take. As with all art that could be seen as ‘controversial’ or ‘challenging’, a mature listener should take into consideration the implications, good or bad, of what they’re listening to. Exotica can exist in today’s world without being just a dated or ‘guilty pleasure’, but perhaps it should also be more than just ‘easy listening’. Art should never be dismissed and left outside the listener’s circle, at least to a point—it’s safe to say Exotica has good enough intentions not to cross any drastic lines.

By the end of the 60s, commercial appeal of Exotica had waned enough to push it to the backgrounds of public interest. It has since been considered to be absorbed by more general genre of Lounge Music—while very few works that could be considered ‘Exotica’ have come out in the decades since the 60s, the theme of escapism has become a common feature of many film and television soundtracks and concept albums spanning all genres.

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Listening Back- Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.

Released Janurary 5, 1973, “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.” was the debut rock record of an ambitious twenty-something named Bruce Springsteen. In what’s become a staple of Springsteen, “Asbury Park” goes all out in every regard—instrumentation, lyrical scope, and most importantly, its energy. As a debut, it may seem to edge towards overzealousness, yet looking at where his confidence has launched him now, maybe Springsteen really was the prophet that rock needed after Bob Dylan started falling out of critical acclaim in the early 70s.

It was the weight of the comparisons to Dylan that weighed Springsteen down for so much of his early career, and things could’ve been much worse—while the completed album contains seven full-band songs and two-solo tracks, it was originally intended to be five of each. Luckily, an early incarnation of his loyal backing group, The E-Street Band was to support him through most of the album, fueling the fire that Springsteen’s early lyrics might otherwise have been too excited to convey. Though it sold just 25,000 copies by the end of ’73, there was enough positive critical reception to keep the rag-tag team from E-Street afloat, and now, over forty years after it’s release, the seeds ‘The Boss’ was planting are all the more obvious.

“Blinded By The Light” opens with a quick, springy guitar riff before the E-Street band kicks into action, including the unforgettable saxophone of Clarence Clemons. Suddenly the listener is assaulted with a series of stream-of-consciousness rhymes, providing flashes of the romanticized Asbury Park Springsteen hails from. He writes himself into the mix of a collection of colorful characters, where he’s the scrappy kid with stars of fame in his eyes, and he throws himself at it full-force. “Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun / Oh but mama that’s where the fun is.”

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Now that we know a little about Bruce and his vision of his home, “Growin’ Up” gives us the story of his upbringing; his outsider status, his solace in rockn’roll, and finally his glimpse of musical nirvana. It’s less of a ‘wall-of-sound’ than the first track, with David Sancious’ tasteful piano underlying the whole track—Sanscious goes on to play on Springsteen’s next two albums.

The album takes a step back from the ‘real’ Springsteen for the third track, the poetic “Mary Queen of Arkansas”. It’s the first solo track, with just Springsteen’s acoustic guitar and harmonica supporting his voice, occasionally swelling and threatening to explode back into full-force. It’s the other side of him: his ability to slow down and deliver a subtle, yet impassioned tale. He revisits this side just a few times in his career, most notably the entirely solo albums “Nebraska” (1982) and “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (1995). It’s also the first time we see one of his recurring lyrical themes—musicians as a kind of travelling circus, “the big top is for dreamers.”

We’re offered another stroll through Springsteen’s hometown in “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street”. There’s a clear fondness for his New Jersey roots, but it’s outshined by his desire to make it out and make it big. While it’s still early in his career here, in later albums like “Darkness on the Edge of Town” we see him conflicted between fame and commitment to the friends and family he left behind.

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“Lost in the Flood” focuses on a single character, ‘Jimmy the Saint’, a “dull-eyed and empty-faced” drifter still hung up on the glory days of racing. The track is more sparse and melancholy than the rest of the full-band pieces, perhaps a then-rare sign of Springsteen’s own worries about becoming trapped in Asbury Park with his dreams unfulfilled. Springsteen’s speaker watches Jimmy go out in one final spectacle, wondering all the while where he went wrong. There’s also the impression that Jimmy was a Vietnam veteran, a pitiful figure that would be featured more prominently in his breakthrough album “Born in the USA” (1984).

It and the next track, the solo “The Angel” revolve around themes of religion and how it blends into Springsteen’s idea of Americana. It’s a “hubcap heaven” that compares cars ‘choking the interstate’ to the rat race of life—lyrics that are recycled and refined in the title track of “Born to Run” (1975). It’s not performed solo in the sense of “Mary”, but instead has Springsteen’s crooning backed by Sancious’ piano and guest-musician Richard Davis’ upright bass.

By every right, “For You” should sound even darker than “The Angel”, sung from the perspective of a man comforting his lover after her failed suicide attempt—and it does in many live renditions that would follow. As for the record, the chipper organ and energy of the E-Street Band opt for the ‘laugh’ in the woman’s ability to “laugh and cry in a single sound.” Like much of the album, it’s a series of face-level images, yet considering the source material it’s a more touching song than the two solo tracks.

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Forever memorable for Clarence Clemons’ saxophone riff, “Spirt in the Night” is like once more taking a stroll through Asbury Park and seeing it in a new light, now in the steamier hours of the night. It follows a cast of rowdy teenaged characters, some of whom (like ‘Wild Billy’) appear in later albums. If “Asbury Park” as a whole is Springsteen preparing to leave, “Spirit in the Night” feels like a group of kids having their final hurrah, not worrying about becoming disillusioned with their hometown or what harsh reality might lie just outside of it. Realizing it’s time to move on, Springsteen sings “we closed our eyes and said goodbye”.

The album closes out with the cool confidence of “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City”, which in part throws back to the beginning of the album, while also having Springsteen pose himself as a sort of rebellious teenaged icon, somewhere between “Brando” and “Casanova”. After hearing New Jersey described for most of the album, you’ve pieced together the image of the man who is strolling through it before eventually rising above it—the “king of the alley”; the “prince of the paupers”; the “pimp’s main prophet”.

As a debut album, “Asbury Park” is an excitable pseudo-autobiography of Springsteen and the bohemia he hails from, and serves as a precursor to many thematic elements he’ll delve deeper into throughout his career. Its ambition is well-balanced by its humor; its vision of America is both theatrical and grimy; its budding chemistry between bandmates is obvious; apart from being Springsteen’s introduction to the world outside of Asbury Park, the album stands strongly on its own.

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David Bowie’s “★” (“Blackstar”)

Update for January 11, 2016:
Confirmed by family members and his official social media accounts, “David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family after a courageous 18-month battle with cancer”. Read more here: “David Bowie dies of cancer at 69, BBC News”.
So this really shines his latest album, “Blackstar” (released Jan. 8, 2016) in a new light. It seems that Bowie, in his struggle against cancer, saw fit to reflect on his career and his role as a pop icon, a complex balance of man and messiah he vaguely covers in much of the album’s lyrics. I feel that upon hearing this tragic news, my opinions on what the album’s saying have only grown stronger. As a swan song to his career and life, he has certainly left us with much to think about. Below is my original interpretation of “Blackstar”, posted January 9, 2016:

For a solo artist whose music career is coming up on fifty years, David Bowie has remained a popular and highly-regarded star based on his ability to constantly reinvent himself and his music. His personas have always been in response to a social issue he wishes to lyrically confront; Ziggy Stardust was an androgynous, sexually challenging character from early in his career; The Thin White Duke was a coldly detached aristocrat who came by the time Bowie’s career was well-etablished. But with the release of his latest abum, “Blackstar” (officially “★”, 2016), it seems a long time since Bowie’s been in-character, leading one to wonder if he’s given that venture up for the time being—or perhaps he’s building a persona we have yet to realize. Bowie himself hasn’t given interviews or explanations in years, leaving all the interpreting up to the listener.

As a whole, Blackstar may be the strangest and most experimental album Bowie has ever made. Musically, it’s mainly a mix of jazz and electronic music—but other elements from Bowie’s musical career are thrown into the pot. You have sparse tracks of just Bowie’s mechanized voice and unconventional drums like in the first track, also called “Blackstar”; there’s the saxophone driven “Lazarus”; the quick-paced heavy rock track “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)”; there’s plenty of diversity here, with the main unifying motif being Bowie’s almost robotic voice and sparse, cryptic lyrics.

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Judging by the album title, one might think Bowie was returning to his space-aged music of the late 60s and 70s—yet the theme of this album, to me at least, is a challenging of conservative tradition in the form of organized religion and the mindset of the working class, and how Bowie relates to it all. Like in the way his music contains hints of his previous styles, the lyrics could be seen as a look back on his past personas.

“Blackstar” talks about the fall of a man, who is replaced by a sort of preacher surrounded by an audience hungry for direction and satisfaction. The prophet cries out “I’m not a filmstar”, “I’m not a pop star” and other titles of the sort, before settling on the fact “I’m a Blackstar”. He asks his audience “How many times does an angel fall”—is this all Bowie’s summation of his career? Considering how analyzed his work and life has been, is this an artist wondering how he ended up in this pseudo-religious position of power? The music video only further suggests this, showing Bowie himself waving a bible-like leather book with the album’s star on the cover to an encapsulated crowd. Meanwhile, the crashed astronaut shown in the video’s intro has been speculated to represent the lost character of Major Tom from Bowie’s famous “Space Oddity”. The astronaut is shown long-dead and covered in dust, laying alone on a strange planet, perhaps representing the ‘fallen angel’ in the lyrics, or even Bowie himself.

The next track “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”, has very few lyrics, but going off the theme established in the first track, it seems to be the narrator lamenting the death of a woman. There’s a return to his classic vision of androgyny and sexual ambiguity in the lines “Man, she punched me like a dude” and “ ‘Tis my curse I suppose”. The line “Hold your mad hands, I cried” could be taken a couple ways—either Bowie himself struck the attacking woman down or the ‘mad hands’ belong to a crowd, suggesting she was killed by a mob much like the one seen in the first song, and much like the whore-killing mobs found in so many religious texts. Bowie could even be both the assaulter and the whore, reflecting on his own dispatching of his androgynous roots.The final line “This is the war” could suggest a more general sexism he observes in the crowd, but it could also be the personal war that the narrator or the singer faces.

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“Lazarus”, named after the biblical figure who was raised from death by Jesus Christ, also talks about a rebirth of sorts and the many lives Bowie has led. ‘Heaven’ in this case is like fame, the narrator being so ‘high’ it makes his “brain whirl”. The song is grounded in reality, mentioned the narrator’s trip to New York where he ‘used up all his money’; now he vows to become free like a bluebird. Again, a lamenting of Bowie’s celebrity status? Considering how far the album strays from pop and mainstream accessibility, it seems likely.

“Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” is much angrier than the rest of the album’s melancholic tone. The lyrics are like a man pushed to his emotional limits recounting the keystones of his relationship with his wife. The purchasing of a house, powering through an illness, leading up to his wife’s death—yet it’s revealed to be by the narrator’s hands. “Sue, I pushed you down beneath the weeds / endless faith in hopeless deeds” he rambles over her grave as he says his goodbyes. The narrator reveals he found evidence of his wife’s affair with another man, shocked at his own foolishness and her unfaithfulness.

The song is smartly followed by the drunken and confused “Girl Loves Me”, which sounds like a celebrity’s hungover recollection of his week of partying, which has all but vanished from his mind. It can be easily taken as Bowie criticizing or maybe reliving a wild time from his life, or perhaps the time lost could be stretched to his whole life. Looking back now on his career, Bowie seems almost alienated from his past selves, as if Ziggy and the Thin White Duke actually took chunks of his life with him as they disappeared.

“Dollar Days” continues the motif of a fallen or falling star, this time targeting “cash girls” and “oligarchs with foaming mouths” working at journalist magazines. Bowie reassures the listener that he’s not forgetting anyone, try as he might—is he referring to critics who don’t understand his vision? He goes on to sing “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to / It’s nothing to me”, and he’ll simply “fool them all again and again.” If Bowie leaves his work up to interpretation, is he laughing at false interpretations (like this one)? And perhaps at the same time humbling his own music and finding amusement in the way people scrounge through his words, like the preacher in “Blackstar”?

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The album closes out with the sorrowful ballad “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, which continues the use of biblical imagery (“I know something’s very wrong / the pulse returns the prodigal sons”) to describe Bowie’s alienation from his celebrity status. “Seeing more and feeling yes” perfectly sums up the way his thoughtful and sparse lyrics juxtapose his detached and distant voice. By ‘everything’, is he referring back to the way his characters and personas took with them aspects of his personality before being torn and devoured by his audience and critics? Bowie seems to be unable to put all of this into words, i.e. ‘give it away’, which could explain the frankly scant lyrics he’s used throughout the album.

This of course is all just my idea of what the album is trying to tell, and you can trust Bowie is an intelligent and versed enough artist to convey these ideas and more in so few words and so unique a sound. “Blackstar”, released on David Bowie’s sixty-ninth birthday (January 8, 2016), may just be a gloomy retrospective of his own career and personality. The fact he is able to do so in a way that’s both creepy and intriguing only shows he’s still got the creativity and talent to challenge his listeners. Considering he’s a man of many faces, if this truly is ‘David Bowie’ himself and not some new persona, Blackstar is a very personal look into the still-fresh mind of an artist that has already given so much to his audience.

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