REVIEW: Patti Smith - "Banga"

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Patti Smith - Banga
Record Label:  Colombia Records
Release Date:  June 5, 2012

Beware blasphemy, but it's possible that Patti Smith has hit the prime of her career.  The 65 year old, whose 11th album Banga dropped in June, has just come off the success of Just Kids, the 2010 National Book Award Winner, which details Smith's relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe.   It was an easy standout from 2010 not only for Smith's wild and legendary existence, but for her lucid prose, perceptive eye, and immense compassion.  If you haven't read Just Kids what are you doing? Seriously, call in sick (or go home sick) stop by your local independent bookseller (and if you don't have one suck it up and go to Barnes and Noble) buy Just Kids and read it.  You'll be doing yourself and the world a favor.

Despite her status as the high priestess of punk, Smith's career has always been a jumble of styles. Think about the staccato of "Redondo Beach" or that blazing first track from Horses, "Gloria," where Smith interweaves her own poetry (starting with the unbelievable opening verse "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine") with Them's "Gloria" to a raucous, exuberant beat.  To think of Smith as a singular voice is to deny and disparage who she is an an artist.  Her musical career was long tied to Lenny Kaye (of MC5 fame) and her lyrics derive from a certain nucleus of the late 60s and early 70s where people like her and playwright/actor/musician Sam Shepard (who dedicated his last book to Smith) became Shamans of rock 'n roll.  As Shepard would write in a play that he cast Smith to say it in:  "You gotta be a rock and roll Jesus with a big ol' Cowboy Mouth."  Smith has always been that. Her gift is the words, the vibe, the bacchanalia, the poetic insistence underlying rock 'n roll.  So, don't go around calling her a hippie  because you're some kid who thinks that music was born yesterday, that has no appreciation for the past, and so calls everything "hippie" music because it happened before you were born.  Give up your prerogative, get a dictionary, and listen up. 

In many ways, Banga picks up from where Just Kids and Smith left off.  Full of tributes and homages to friends and inspirations, Smith runs the gambit from dissecting Amy Winehouse (on "This is the Girl") to Johnny Depp ("Nine"); sci-fi directors ("Trakovsky (The Second Stop is Jupiter)"), explorers ("Amerigo") and Japanese earthquakes ("Fuji-San").  Again, beware of the possible blasphemy:  it could be the most musically accomplished album of Smith's career.  Her backing band is unbelievable. Opener "Amerigo" is a complex mix of astonishment for exploration, revile at colonialism, and homage to the unbridled (un-Colonized) universe.  To get the music to match Smith's astonishing poetry is a feat.  As the riff kicks itself through and the song rises to a crescendo, it's the first taste, the first hint that Smith is at her apex--the priestess has risen again.

What shines throughout this album, though, is Smith's poetry, her writing, her voice which has (as always) the Midas touch.  I'm not certain why we don't give older artists the benefit of the doubt. Why we have to look at their legacy as opposed to their reality.  This record is very real and it is very good. Smith's stance is as it has been, as a person, a throaty spell-caster whose very connection to the art that she does goes beyond just about anyone else working in music today.  Punk is not a sound; it's an ethos:  a way of understanding the world.  Patti Smith was one of the first who gave that way of seeing back to us, and she did it in her own way, by retracing who we are and what we knew over our own hearts.  By making us believe in music, by casting over us, one by one, her own spell.

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