On her second album, Patti Smith lays back, refusing to assert herself as she did on last year’s Horses. The key is in the billing: on Radio Ethiopia, her group dominates. But while Smith can be an inventive, sometimes inspired writer and performer, her band is basically just another loud punk-rock gang of primitives, riff-based and redundant. The rhythm is disjointed, the guitar chording trite and elementary. Even at best (“Distant Fingers,” for instance), the Patti Smith Group isn’t much more than a distant evocation of psychedelic amateurs like Clear Light.
Smith seems to lack the direction necessary to live up to her own best ideas — the song-poem structure of the first album wasn’t completely effective, but here there’s no structure at all. Even her lyric writing, the most captivating and polished part of her work, seems depersonalized — there’s nothing as moving as “Redondo Beach” or “Kimberly” on this album. And if there were, one would hardly be able to hear it in Jack Douglas’ overpowering mix.
Smith obviously would like to be just another rock singer, with a band that could reach a broad, tough teenage audience. Ceding control to a band that lacks her best qualities and encourages her worst (“Pissing in a River” is only vulgar, without the transcendent quality of the earlier “Piss Factory”) is hardly the way to go about it.
But the most disturbing image on Radio Ethiopia is the picture on the liner notes of Smith gazing reverently at Harry Crosby’s opium pipe: the false artist worshiped by the real.