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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Digging Deeper – A Fistful of Dollars

Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) can easily be named the film that revamped the Western genre, which Hollywood had spent the last thirty years milking for all it was worth. The film’s low-budget allowed Leone to take artistic risks which immediately proved popular worldwide, becoming the golden standard of the emerging ‘Spaghetti Western’ subgenre. One could even argue that in the decades since (which have been relatively sparse on the ‘Western’ front), Spaghetti Westerns have become the new norm for the genre as a whole. For an Italian like Leone to rework tightly held American standards and present them back arguably better than ever is no small feat, yet you can see it in the way the United States quickly adopted Clint Eastwood as a rising star.

It’s also worth noting that the setting wasn’t the only thing Leone borrowed—he openly acknowledged that the plot was a reworking of celebrated Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s film “Yojimbo” (1961), which features a wandering samurai playing opposing crime lords for the sake of the town he passes through. Kurosawa wrote to Leone via letters, and the two worked out a legal deal that allowed certain distribution rights in Asia and royalties to give Kurosawa his due. This combined with the many ways in which Leone’s stylistic choices have been borrowed in the years since show the somewhat cyclical way filmmakers inspire each other—but I digress.

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The film is just plain beautiful. From the wide-lensed landscape shots to the crystal clear close-ups to the naturally lit but intelligible night sequences, the framing, editing and in-motion camerawork is perhaps the greatest legacy of the film. Just as iconic, however, is the musical score done by Ennio Morricone. Unlike the orchestrated soundtracks of American films, the music here is made of obscure sounds and noninstruments—yelps, whips, and so on to build the ‘Wild West’ mood and heighten tension before the action starts. And considering how difficult it can be to hear all the nuances in dialogue of 50s/60s films, all the sound in “Fistful” was dubbed in post-production.

Clint Eastwood stars as The Stranger, sometimes called ‘Joe’, commonly referred to in his future appearances as “The Man With No Name”. He’s a man of few words, confident, lawful yet ruthless. We know little about his past besides the occasional vague blurb, (“I never found home that great”, etc.) but we as the audience don’t need to know anything—his actions speak for him. He quietly rides into San Miguel, the almost-deserted borderlands town caught under two feuding gangs: the Baxters and the Rojos.

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In an iconic scene that has become imitated to death, he stands off against four outlaws; a tense Mexican Standoff where any of his many foes could take a shot at him any second. He calmly yet sternly warns them, his poncho shifting slightly enough for the outlaws (and the audience) to catch a glimpse of the .45 on his hip. There’s extreme-closeups that quickly jump from each characters face; the menacing Stranger, the nervous outlaws, the enthralled citizens. And just as quick, the Stranger draws—we watch from behind the pistol at his hip as he quickly guns down all the men without missing a shot. As a hero, we never question his capability… we do however, question his motives, not at all like the “white hats” who championed many of the Hollywood Westerns of yesteryear.

As the title suggests, The Man With No Name initially cheats both the Baxters and the Rojos for a few dollars. He’s cunning, but the film contrasts him with a supporting cast that is clearly meant to create ‘the line’ that divides honor from dishonor. For example, Esteban Rojo (Sieghardt Rupp) is another capable gunman, yet he is cowardly and sneaky. No Name is tricky to be sure, but he chooses to face men fairly, whereas Esteban is constantly plotting to literally shoot others in the back. The main antagonist of the film, Ramón Rojo (Gian Maria Volontè), is the only man as deadly as No Name, yet twice in the film we see him brutally gun down first an entire platoon and then a gang of unarmed men, a wild grin on his face the whole time.

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It’s not all grim however. The film is for the most part lighthearted and self-referential (“It’s like playing cowboys and Indians!”), and No Name himself is offered a few goofy moments in his solitude. He shots the ropes of a door so it slams a guard in the face; he accidentally punches a woman in the face when she sneaks up on him; he sleeps with his cigar still in his mouth. He often gets a bad wrap for being one-dimensional, yet he’s meant to be this certain ‘mask’ or blank slate which we as the audience can fill in, and it makes the little details all the more rewarding. By the end of the film his heart has warmed to the townsfolk, he no longer works for money but because they ‘remind him of someone’, and then he’s on his way by the end.

It’s important to remember he’s a loner, always caught in the middle of two opposing forces, be it the Baxters and Rojos or America and Mexico. He’s constantly cursed as ‘the gringo’, and it ends up being an ‘old Mexican proverb’ that he defies in the films finale standoff: rifles always beat pistols. His .45 versus Ramón’s Winchester. Of course he wins and leaves with just a few parting words, onto his next adventure (aka the rest of Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy”), and it’s perhaps this mystery, those empty boots and hat for us to fill, that makes The Man With No Name such a timeless character. We name him ourselves.

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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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Digging Deeper – To Kill a Mockingbird film

Based on the 1960 classic novel by Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird” (released Christmas Day, 1962) was a smash hit both financially and critically, earning three of the eight Academy Award nominations it received (though it lost ‘Best Picture’ to “Lawrence of Arabia”). It’s one of the rare occasions of the film being on the same level of quality as the book, and that’s saying something for a novel considered one of the “greatest of all time”. The film adaption too is still held with esteemed respect, thanks to Gregory Peck’s depiction of Atticus Finch. Visually, director Robert Mulligan cut a very plain and proper film, but in doing so, he allowed Peck—and the source material—to really breathe. Substance over style.

Key to “Mockingbird” is the fact that we see it through the eyes of Scout Finch (played by Mary Badham), a young girl living a simple life in Maycomb County, Alabama, circa 1930. Badham, just 10 years old, is thankfully one of the finest child actors of classical cinema, even earning herself an Academy nomination for ‘Best Supporting Actress’. It’s through her admiring eyes that we’re introduced to Atticus Finch, her single-father and a respected lawyer in Maycomb. His first scene tells you all you need to know about him: he accepts an alternate payment from an impoverished customer simply because it’s ‘the right thing to do’—he then notes for future reference how his customer was embarrassed by the transaction, something Atticus will avoid in the future. He’s noble, thoughtful, and perceptive; the paragon of virtue. And though he’s the real ‘protagonist’ of the film, his plot is rather pushed aside for the first half, advanced only in passing.

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The ‘antagonist’ however, is set to be Boo Radley (played by Robert Duvall), the mentally handicapped neighbor who, in Scout’s eyes, is the scary boogeyman who only comes out at night. Though we don’t see him until the end, he’s built up as some sort of cheesy horror villain in that the children hear his heavy footsteps approaching, see his looming shadow on the wall behind them, and so forth. From the innocent perspective of Scout and her brother Jem (played by Phillip Aldford), Boo may as well be Nosferatu. (Not to mention his name is “Boo!”). The real antagonist is better personified by the (somewhat exaggerated) racist Bob Ewell (James Anderson), who represents Maycomb and by extension the American South of the 30s.

We get to the true focus of the film when Atticus is approached to defend Tom Robinson, a young black man accused of raping Bob Ewell’s daughter. There’s an ironic sort of tone when Bob hears Atticus’ acceptance of the job and demands, “What kind of a man are you?”

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Before we get to that, I want to look at three scenes that are so important to the film, and especially to the second-person characterization of Atticus. There’s a dinner scene where Atticus tells his children about the time he got his first gun as a teenager. He goes into how you ‘start with shooting tins’ before you start desiring more. Then you start shooting at birds, but as Atticus’ father told him, “Tis a sin to kill a mockingbird, for all they do is sing.”

The next scene depicts Atticus shooting down a mad dog in the street, a pivotal moment not in how Scout sees her father, but in how we see him. Atticus is reluctant to shoot the dog, but does so simply because it must be done. Mentioned later by a neighbor, he’s a man “born to do unpleasant jobs”. He stops the dog with one bullet—apparently, as the Mayor explains, he’s always been the best shot in the county. Why hide his gifts? It seems that Atticus is so humble, he doesn’t want to be the ‘town hero’. Later in the story, Scout asks him why he chooses to defend Tom Robinson, to which he replies “I couldn’t hold my head up in town if I didn’t.”

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Immediately following the dog scene we see Bob Ewell stalk down the same street, approaching their house just as the mad dog did. He offers some threats to Atticus before leaving. Clearly the mad dog and Bob Ewell are faces of the same ugly social issues that plague American society—racism spreading and infecting like the mad dog.

There’s an iconic court scene that takes up over a quarter of the film’s 2-hour runtime, with the clear-cut imagery of the white folk of Maycomb sitting on the ground, surrounding Tom Robinson while all the black folk watch helplessly from the balconies above. Atticus delivers an amazing monologue that really lets Peck stretch his acting muscles, but there’s where the biggest problem of the film lies. For “Mockingbird” supposedly defending the view of the oppressed, black people barely show up at all, much less with speaking roles. At least in the novel there are extended sequences of Scout and Jem visiting a lively black church or learning lessons from their mother-like ‘helper’ Calpurina (played however scantly by Estelle Evans). Many argue that the film adaption is just another “white savior” stereotype, and it’s the focus on Atticus is undeniable.

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As mentioned earlier, the nature of the novel allows there to be more ground covered in terms of perspective, but considering Scout and Jem’s innocent outlook in the film, of course they’re going to see the plot revolve around their father’s heroism. It’s this innocence that ends up saving Atticus from a lynch mob that comes for his client. When Tom Robinson is unjustly found guilty and shot while trying to escape prison, what should be a climactic emotional scene between Atticus and Tom’s parents is missing—Jem instead waits in his father’s car.

In what becomes the film’s climax for the children, a drunken Bob Ewell attacks and knocks Jem unconscious, before Boo Radley, once the ‘villain’, steps in and saves the day. Much like the black population of Maycomb, the handicapped Boo is suppressed by his own family, imprisoned in his house while his father literally paves over any means of communication he has with the outside world. Scout learns a valuable lesson, that is, compassion for those different from herself—what Atticus has been teaching her all along.

In their struggle, Boo kills Bob in self-defence, letting the villain finally get his comeuppance. Jem, still unconscious, is brought home, where Atticus is waiting to comfort his children. The movie ends with with Atticus holding his daughter, who claims he sat and waited all night until Jem woke. It’s a sort of promise Atticus makes to his children and the film does to its audience: that good men will always be there to do what’s right.

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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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