Thursday, August 23, 2012

Patti Smith's Banga on LP

My first encounter with Patti Smith was confrontational; I was a teenager and discovered Easter in the record bins at the local Licorice Pizza. The rawness of the image--no bra, those armpits, is she attractive or not, can't tell--was perplexing and I wasn't mature enough to decipher the message she was sending. It was my loss that I put it back into the bins, my suburban values preventing me from understanding that Patti wanted to challenge me and my pubescent ideals concerning sex appeal and sexism. All I could think of was what my mother would do if I brought this LP home. This was the woman, after all, who confiscated my paperback copy of Jaws and returned it only after she stapled together the chapter where Hooper and Mrs. Brody have an affair.

Because of this awkward introduction, I find it oddly charming that Patti Smith is such a comforting, almost maternal presence in 2012. Her new album, Banga, is more than a landmark album from an artist who has been vital to rock music for more than 40 years. At 65, she has bloomed into a nurturing force of beauty. Her voice has never sounded so lovely and confident. You won't hear primal screams in Banga, but you will hear someone who has gained wisdom and calm during an amazing, challenging life, and even her harshest admonishments can be delivered in lullaby form and still be totally convincing in thier urgency. While many of these songs are infused with a mysticism that suggest she's been studying Native American cultures with uncommon scrutiny, there's a grounded feel to these songs that are so committed to the joys of rock and roll that it seems like the last thirty years of pop music never happened.

In the past I've resisted becoming a full-fledged Patti Smith fan, and one of my main obstacles to truly appreciating her has been her penchant for including long, rambling spoken-word pieces in her albums that tend to stress ugliness, decay and chaos. She's first and foremost a poet, even a beat poet by the strictest standards, but I feel something's lost when you hear a poetic recitation and you can't see the poet's emphatic, animated delivery. Poems are words, and they have a flow and structure on the page that can get lost in a mere voice. A face brings back the humanity. In Banga, however, she's able to reconcile this gap with a strong musical foundation in the spoken-word pieces. In fact, she often departs from just speaking these words and impulsively sings the occasional syllable or two as if she can't fight the feeling that inspired her to do so. On the best of these cuts, "Tarkovsky (the Second Stop Is Jupiter)," the band plays dreamily behind her, inducing jazz-influenced overtones and phrases that are downright hypnotic. Only one time does she ramble for longer than ten minutes, on "Constantine's Dream," yet the band starts jamming as if they're auditioning for Abraxas. It works.

When she sticks to more straightforward song structures, Patti accomplishes something rare: she connects to the past in a way that seems more than just timeless. She actually grabs your hand and takes you back. Much has been said about her contributions to the punk movement, but her real roots go back further, to the late '60s and early '70s, when musicians played as if every note was going to be examined under a microscope. There's no artifice in songs like "Amerigo" and "April Fool," just music. This is rock and roll in its best guise, and it feels like it's been missing in action for quite some time. Patti even travels further back in time, before the British Invasion, to sing the deliriously poppy and appropriately girlish "This Is a Girl," and you almost expect a doo-wop or two in the chorus.

The only misstep on the album, in my opinion, is closing Banga out with a rather straightforward cover of "After the Gold Rush." Other than having a children's choir take over the verses in the song's closing moments, there's nothing novel or even necessary about it. Just a few years ago I watched Thom Yorke sing a passionate, unique version of this song at Neil Young's Bridge Concert Benefit, and Neil came out afterward and hugged him and could only manage a feeble "Wow." I think in the right mood, Patti could hit this kind of high. Even with this relatively mild-mannered coda, however, Banga is still a remarkable album. After Easter and Horses, this is the Patti Smith album to get.

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