PATTI SMITH Gone Again (Arista)
"Gone Again" marks the creative resurgence of Patti Smith, stirred by the untimely deaths of her husband and MC5 guitarist Fred Sonic Smith, brother Todd, friend and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and Kurt Cobain. Despite the inevitable air of gravitas that accompanies a project with such a subtext, "Gone Again" is probably closer in spirit to the twisted pop and poetry of "Easter" that the, er, twisted punk and poetry of "Horses", especially when all the elements come together. Take "Beneath The Southern Cross", for example, a jangling acoustic kind of waltz about nothing in particular, which really soars when Jeff Buckleys (so thats what hes been doing for the last two years!) wordless backing vocals arrive near its close. The single, "Summer Cannibals", is as exuberant a song about eating people as you could wish for, and is another of the albums highlights. Best bit is the closing "Farewell Reel", wherein Smith justifiably pleads "I dont know why but when it rains it rains on me". Maybe the rest of the album doesnt quite make it, especially the eight-minute plus dirges "About A Boy" (the inevitable Kurt tribute) and "Fireflies", but these are early days, and given Pattis Blue Nile-like work rate well probably have time enough to warm to them. In the meantime, be thankful that shes recording at all, especially with the likes of Buckley Jr, Tom Verlaine and John Cale.
PATTI SMITH Peace And Noise (Arista)
On last years welcome but wobbly comeback album, "Gone Again", Patti Smith was moved to music by the deaths of her husband Fred "Sonic" Smith, her brother Todd, and her close friend the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Between then and now she, and we, have lost William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jeff Buckley, leaving the tone of her new work even darker than before.
She still sings like Polly Jean Harvey sprinkled with desiccated crows foot, and the melodies can charitably be described as workmanlike, but "Peace And Noise" is a fine, challenging album which easily betters its predecessor. Identifiable subject matter includes the beat generation tribute "1959", musically at least a close cousin of "Summer Cannibals" off the last album, the exodus from the dust bowls of 1930s America in "Blue Poles", and Allen Ginsbergs "Footnote To Howl", here set to music and retitled "Spell". The low point must be "Memonto Mori", ten minutes plus which was, according to the sleeve notes, improvised live in studio. Doh! On the plus side the usual crack back-up squad again includes old Patti Smith Group refugees J D Daugherty and Lenny Kaye, and Michael Stipe turns up to sing on the fine closer "Last Call".
Nobody could rightly expect Smith to turn in anything as startlingly wonderful as her debut "Horses", in the same way that the world will grow old and grey waiting for Van Morrison to top "Astral Weeks", but "Peace And Noise" is the latest in a series of lesser triumphs, whose sense of self-belief and despairing anger more than justifies its existence.
PATTI SMITH Horses (Simply Vinyl)
"Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine". As the first line on a debut album this blasphemous declaration of outsider intent takes some beating, especially when the song it presages is ostensibly a cover of Van Morrison's "Gloria". But "Horses" is crammed with such startling moments: Smith's amorphously gendered persona haunts the album from the cover photograph of her wearing a suit to the fluid sexual mechanics of the aforementioned opener and "Redondo Beach" which follows it. Over the space of eight tracks she and a band drawn from the ranks of Television and Blue Oyster Cult crash through thunderous garage rock ("Gloria"), white reggae ("Redondo Beach"), piano performance poetry (the sublime nine minutes of "Birdland") and sweaty Stax soul (elements of "Land Of 1,000 Dances" sneak into the epic "Land"). Their copious instrumental prowess is best illustrated by the rollercoaster dynamics of "Free Money", which blows in with the fragility of a cooed lullaby and ends with Jay Dee Daugherty's freight train drumming and Smith's hot-wired, garbled repetition of the title battling it out to see who can jump the tracks first. And musically, with the exception of the doomy coda "Elegie", "Horses" is consistently brilliant, original ideas bursting forth from every pore. Despite being 27 years old it resolutely refuses to sound dated, something that probably has as much to do with John Cale's uncluttered, stark production (he seems to have something of a knack for picking landmark debuts, having also worked on first albums by The Stooges and Happy Mondays) as Smith's obvious veneration by the likes of P J Harvey. Simply Vinyl's reissue restores "Horses" to record racks up and down the land for the first time in nearly a decade: it sounds slightly dull and distorted, although probably accurately reflects the state of the master tapes in doing so. Smith went on to make more commercially successful albums, of which "Easter" is arguably the casual browser's favourite, but "Horses" effectively tells you everything you need to know.
PATTI SMITH Land (1975-2002) (Arista)
"Land (1975-2002)" is a lovingly packaged 2 CD retrospective of Patti Smith's career as an American artist. Disc one's contents were apparently selected by her fans, and disc two is a hand-picked collection of rare, unreleased, live and demo material.
The difficulty in assessing any Patti Smith album is that it's destined to be judged in the shadow of her 1975 debut "Horses". The subsequent 27 years of her career have generated some poignant and powerful moments, but nothing to match the sustained ferocity of that album's awesome proto-punk beat poetry, from which a rather curmudgeonly two tracks feature here.
Nevertheless, "Horses" is so magnificent that even material that fails to match it can still be very good. Into that category stride the deceptively gentle, trickling "Dancing Barefoot", the anthemic (but in a good way) Springsteen collaboration "Because The Night", and the luminous "Frederick", written for her late husband, the former MC5 guitarist Fred 'Sonic' Smith. Much of this first disc sounds like literary new wave, lightly frosted with an AOR sheen, perhaps typified by the material from her 'comeback' albums "Dream Of Life", "Gone At Last" and "Peace And Noise". Listen to "Summer Cannibals", "People Have The Power" or "1959", for example, fine songs all but slightly disappointingly foursquare compared with the mystery and abandon that characterised her most enthralling work. Or consider the cover of "When Doves Cry" recorded for this collection. Prince's original was a startlingly arranged slab of minimalist electrofunk. Here it becomes a slightly hobbling guitar ballad, almost exactly the reverse of Smith's transformation of Van Morrison's R&B shouter "Gloria" into a blasphemous, erotic meditation on the corrupting power of celebrity. By the same token, though, this disc also contains the clanking, ritualistic "Ghost Dance" and the droning (but in a good way) "Beneath The Southern Cross", which brings Patti together with Jeff Buckley, John Cale and Tom Verlaine.
Disc two opens with her 1974 b-side "Piss Factory", which stands alongside Television's "Little Johnny Jewel" as one of those oft-cited but rarely heard totems of the New York underground. Its an astounding slice of beatnik jazz piano poetry, a full-blooded assault on the indignity of labour, and justifies the purchase of the album all by itself. The rest of the CD fails to compete with this astonishing beginning: live and demo versions of "Horses" tracks are welcome but pale in comparison to the conceptually perfect studio versions, whilst too many of the 2001 live performances that constitute the bulk of the material seem to lurch towards recitation. All is forgiven, however, on reaching the unlisted closing fragment, a wonkily recorded live rendition of what I would guess to be "Tomorrow" from the musical "Annie" (if indeed "Annie" does contain a song called "Tomorrow" ) which is goose-pimply gorgeous.
The whole comes wrapped in a cardboard slipcase and a gatefold digipak, which encloses a lovingly assembled scrapbook of Smith lore, featuring manuscripts, photos (including one of the artist with William Burroughs), prose from Smith and Susan Sontag and, most touchingly, a 1975 letter from Arista president Clive Davis to Patti's mother accompanying three copies of "Horses" which he trusts "will bring you many hours of enjoyment", going on to correctly predict that "you'll be reading a lot about Patti in the future". And, given that if you know where to look on the internet you can scam a copy of "Land (1975-2002)" for half the price of Simply Vinyl's recent reissue of "Horses", for all its flaws this album makes a very eloquent case for itself.