Patti Smith

      Horses (1975; Arista, 1996)
     Radio Ethiopia (1976; Arista, 1996)
      Easter (1978; Arista, 1996)
    Wave (1979; Arista, 1996)
    Dream of Life (1988; Arista, 1996)
     Gone Again (Arista, 1996)
   Peace & Noise (Arista, 1997)
    Gung Ho (Arista, 2000)
     Land (Arista, 2002)
     Trampin' (Columbia, 2004)
     Twelve (Columbia, 2007)
     The Coral Sea (PASK, 2008)

With the very first utterance of her debut album, Patti Smith declares war on the musical complacency of the mid-Seventies: "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine." "Horses" defies the reigning rock conventions of its time, and deflates a few current notions, too. Smith's idiosyncratic mix of Beat poetry and the big beat still has the power to either entice or offend. Teeming with ambition, primitivism, anybody-can-do-this chutzpah and casual androgyny, Horses demands a reaction. On the basis of attitude alone, Smith inspired every punk and Riot Grrrl artist who followed in her wake.

A published poet and rock critic, she began reciting her Beat-tribute "Babelogues" over fellow writer Lenny Kaye's guitar accompaniment in the early Seventies. It was a perfect match: mixing Kaye's proto-punk Nuggets riffs with Smith's poesy. On Horses, her visionary metaphors collide with the inviting din of late-Sixties-style garage-band rock. The title track refers both to stallions as a psychosexual image and to "doin' the pony." Smith expands the words of oldies like "Gloria" and "Land of 1,000 Dances," although the band's furious pounding never obscures the power of those three mighty chords. Quieter, reflective tracks like "Kimberly" and "Elegie" underline the passionate romanticism in her voice.

Radio Ethiopia boasts the Patti Smith Group's growing power as a band, broadcasting a gritty, hard-rocking rhythm guitar sound. "Pumping (My Heart)" and "Ask the Angels" ring out like anthems, but the grueling title cut reveals the Achilles' heel among Patti's pretensions her squalling guitar-feedback orgies never reach beyond the annoyance level.

On Easter producer Jimmy Iovine makes good on Smith's professed rebel stance by moving her sound even closer to solid, meat-and-potatoes mainstream rock. You can hear the newfound confidence in her singing, and the more traditionally structured approach doesn't dull the jagged conviction of "25th Floor," "Space Monkey" and "Till Victory." Maybe Bruce Springsteen did Smith a big favor by giving her a song (which she lightly edited) for this album, finally rendering her skittery energy accessible. But another way of hearing "Because the Night" suggests that this so-called punk priestess breathes a much-needed air of subtlety into the Boss's lofty anthemic construct.

Wave continues that melodic roll with "Dancing Barefoot," and "Frederick," though for the rest of the album Smith sounds uncharacteristically fuzzy, even disengaged. Once the Patti Smith Group had completed a successful tour in 1979, Patti Smith abruptly retired from the music scene. Perhaps her mission felt complete.

After eight subsequent years of marriage (to Detroit rocker Fred "Sonic" Smith) and two children, Smith quietly resurfaced perhaps the only low-profile comeback of the late Eighties. Overproduced by Jimmy Iovine (with Fred "Sonic" Smith), Dream of Life's net effect underwhelms most expectations. Oddly, it sounds a bit out of time more 1983 than 1977, of all things. Not that Smith needs to monitor current trends: when her rekindled vision clicks into overdrive beside Fred Smith's zinging guitar lines on "Up There Down There," "Where Duty Calls" or "People Have the Power," Dream of Life sounds timeless. But mostly Dream of Life sounds tentative and after its release Smith once again fell silent for years. The death of her husband at the end of 1994 brought Smith slowly back to music with a series of concerts.

Then with Gone Again in 1996 Smith launched her most sustained productive period since the Seventies. Gone Again is dedicated to Fred "Sonic" Smith, and not surprisingly, the songs on Gone Again focus on death and loss. Though not near as aggressive as her classic Seventies work, the hard rocking title track and "Summer Cannibals" (both co-written by her late husband) both prove that Smith has no plans to go gentle. Another highlight is the building, emotional "Beneath the Southern Cross" where Smith once again benefits from her powerful partnership with Lenny Kaye. A sharp cover of Dylan's "Wicked Messenger" gives Smith plenty of opportunity to growl and grunt as well as providing a certain dark gravitas to balance against Smith's more uplifting spirituality. In all, Gone Again is a true return to form for the original punk priestess.

Peace & Noise, on the other hand, is a disappointment. Some of the songs like "Dead City" and "Spell" are weakened by the busy out-of-place metal guitar of Oliver Ray and others like the far stronger "1959" feel like leftovers from Gone Again. Far better is Gung Ho where on songs like "New Party" and "Strange Messengers" Smith returns to bringing political and social commentary into her vatic pronouncements. "Lo and Beholden" is another fantastic collaboration with Lenny Kaye. Only on the nearly 12-minute title track does Smith seem to get bogged down by the pretentious overreaching for grandeur that has been her trademark throughout her career.

On Trampin', Smith shuffles between garage-y rockers and more meditative ballads. The best songs are focused, melodic cuts like "Peaceable Kingdom," where she hopes for harmony in a post–9/11 world. Twelve is a covers record where Smith holds her own on some tough songs. She remains relatively faithful to the original on "Gimme Shelter," but on a haunting version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," she replaces grunge guitars with banjo and acoustic strumming.

Smith cut the live Coral Sea with guitar wizard Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine. Culled from two different performances, it's a mostly spoken-word tribute to the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe record, with surrealistic (and sometimes sung) narratives about a sea voyage that are surrounded by Shields' guitar atmospherics. It's not for the uninitiated, though fans of either Smith or Shields could surely get something out of it.

Hardly a traditional greatest hits collection, Land's first disc is mostly a career spanning retrospective that many will find a bit too focused on Smith's Nineties work. The second disc of Land—a rarities, live recordings and outtakes collection—is even more heavily weighted to the Nineties.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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