Friday, June 1, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1144: Patti Smith Group

After almost nine years of reviews dead zones are starting to show up in my music collection where I’ve already reviewed everything in sight. I had to go through almost 60 CDs before I found one that I hadn’t already reviewed.

Does this mean the end is in sight? Hardly – it just means there will always be statistical anomalies, even when you dedicate yourself to the random will of the dice.

Disc 1144 is… Wave
Artist: Patti Smith Group

Year of Release: 1979

What’s up with the Cover? Patti Smith as a crazy bird lady. Part of me wants to invite her over for drinks and an equal part of me wants to cross to the other side of the street. This photo is by famous photographer (and lifelong Patti Smith friend) Robert Mapplethorpe, in case you are wondering why it is so awesome.

How I Came To Know It: After Sheila got me initially interested in Smith, I dug deeper and this was one of the albums I discovered. I liked it, making the purchase of a boxed set of her first five CDs (including “Wave”) a very easy decision to make.

How It Stacks Up:  I have five Patti Smith albums and I like them all. “Wave” holds off “Dream of Life” by the narrowest of margins to take third place.

Ratings: 4 stars

On “Wave” Patti Smith adopts a more pop-friendly approach than her previous three records, but it remains Patti Smith at its core, with plenty of intensity and experimentation sprinkled throughout.

One constant with Patti Smith are her distinctive vocals. On “Wave” they are classic Smith: low but powerful, with a swell of energy that makes you feel like she’s a priestess chanting before a dark and ancient god.

The opening track (and the only one to remotely chart) is “Frederick” is a good example of all of these elements. The song has a radio friendly production, with organ filling in Smith’s ordinarily stark approach. Like a lot of the songs on “Wave”, “Frederick” has a yearning quality, with Smith surrendering herself to a love that is both primal and cosmic.

The theme develops further on the next song, “Dancing Barefoot” which takes the esoteric notions of connectivity in “Frederick” and makes them flesh and blood. The mystery remains but light-hearted organ gives way to eerie guitar with a Middle Eastern-inspired sway in their rhythm. Smith slowly winds her voice around the song’s melody with the insistent refrain:

“Here I go and I don't know why
I flow so ceaselessly
Could it be he's taking over me”

There is a surrender here that is partly a choice and partly an irresistible need that demands resolution.

Smith often examines the concept of celebrity and stardom, and she channels this ably into a cover of the Byrd’s “So You Want To Be (A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star)”. Smith converts the sixties protest quality of the original with a visceral and raw warning of the dangers of the rock and roll lifestyle. Horn sections are removed and replaced with the thump of drum and sweet harmonies are swapped for the screech and distortion of electric guitar. It is advantage Smith and after a couple of times swapping back and forth between them the Byrds’ version started sounding thin and hollow.

Smith’s artsy and experimental side comes out more noticeably on Side Two (or the second half of the disc, if that’s how you roll). Songs like the politically charged “Citizen Ship” and “Broken Flag” interlace with the downright weirdness of “Seven Ways of Going” and the title track, “Wave.”

Broken Flag” is the star of Side Two, a song of revolution filled with the glory of change and the sacrifices needed to make it real. The song has a military beat and swelling piano, as Smith converts her priestess chant to warrior-poet.

The title track is Smith back to her spoken word persona, as she rambles on sounding slightly crazy and obsessed, like a stalker who sees the world in different angles and colours than the rest of us. However, it is more than that, as she also forces you to pay closer attention to the desperate and awkward need for connection inside all of us to one degree or another.

My copy of the album is on CD and has a couple of bonus tracks (take that, vinyl people!). One is a New Wave jumper called “54321/Wave” which is plenty of fun, and the other is a cover of the Blue Oyster Cult song “Fire of Unknown Origin” that she cowrote with BOCer Allan Lanier.

Smith’s version here is so twisted and distorted it feels like the titular Fire of Unknown Origin has stolen Patti Smith to some alternate universe and you’re hearing her warped and warbled voice from some land where the laws of physics don’t apply. It isn’t exactly a dance number, but it is fun to see what can be done with a song when you push it to its artistic limits.

Like most Patti Smith albums “Wave” grew on me with each listen. There are always layers to her work, both within songs and the way she orders them to make a record. “Wave” feels a bit like Smith can’t decide if she wants a hit or just to keep hitting back at the conventional. Ultimately it is a bit of both, and while that might annoy purists, I thought it worked well.

Best tracks: Frederick, Dancing Barefoot, So You Want to be (A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star), Broken Flag

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