"It covers our particular waterfront," says Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye of the poet-singer's new album, "in that we never shied away from song form, and we've never been bound by it. We can play any kind of music, from the Shirelles to John Coltrane."
The as-yet-untitled record -- Smith's first studio effort since 2000's Gung Ho and her debut for the Columbia label after nearly three decades with Arista -- includes, as Kaye puts it, "pretty songs, hard rock songs and what we call 'feels,' a kind of motif with no easy distinction between verse and chorus. This is a band that enjoys a good hit single, but we also like to move into the strange, unforeseen waters of free improvisation. Basically, once Patti gets the theme of a song, once she finds the vocal or poetic key into it, we start wandering with her and see where it takes us. And we always want to take the road less traveled."
The album -- which will be released in April -- features eleven songs, all new originals, including a piece that features Smith's daughter Jesse at the piano. Kaye describes another number, "Stride of the Mind," as "floating on a sea of Farfisa organ." One of the album's two long, improvised pieces is "a salute to Mahatma Gandhi and his principles of non-violent resistance." And the title of "In My Blakean Year" refers to Smith's lifelong love and study of the poetry of William Blake. The song is, according to Kaye, "a description of her understanding of the realms of the contrary that make up Blake's immortal vision."
Smith, Kaye, guitarist Oliver Ray, bassist Tony Shanahan and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty started rehearsals for the album last February. Although Smith has been recording and touring with that lineup for nearly a decade -- her classic Seventies band with Kaye, Daugherty, Ivan Kral and Richard Sohl lasted only half that long -- Kaye says that those initial sessions were held "to determine whether we had a future. Our heritage is honorable [a reference to Smith's acclaimed Seventies albums, such as Horses and Wave. We didn't want to drag it through the mud.
"But she felt rejuvenated," Kaye says of Smith. "She loves to do new work." By April, the new songs were taking shape. After touring Europe and Japan in the summer, and refining the material in soundchecks, the band went into Looking Glass Studios on New York's Lower East Side with engineer Emery Dobyns and recorded for twenty-three straight days. "We didn't take a break -- we did it bam-bam-bam," Kaye says. Smith then took a ten-day break, after which the group reconvened for another twelve straight days of work. "By then," Kaye says, "the record was essentially done."
Kaye, who has played guitar for Smith since the early Seventies, believes that she hasn't changed that much as a songwriter and record maker. "She leads with her intuition," he claims. "The difference now is, she knows how to get where she's going a lot easier. At one time, we would spend six months playing a song live, like 'Free Money' [on Horses]. It was just three chords endlessly repeated, but a song slowly appeared out of it. Now, we understand how to get the preliminary shaping a lot quicker.
"But I also feel," Kaye adds, "that on this record, Patti's confidence and maturity as a performer are at the forefront. There are vocal performances here -- and this is coming from somebody who has watched her sing for three decades -- that she's never come close to having on record before. Maybe she'd get them on the odd night in some Midwestern town, far from any tape machine. But there are things that happened on this record that raised the hairs on my arm."