Patti Smith has always been a poet first. Her words, even when seemingly spontaneous, are selected for their resonant, magic power, full of heft, nuance and intimation. The music around which she frames those lyrics is crafted to the mood and metric flow of the piece.
It's been nearly 30 years since Smith's first album, Horses, cast her immediately into the rock pantheon. Rockers' careers are notoriously short-lived, but poets are forever, and Trampin' demonstrates how durable Smith's vision has become. The banner quotes comparing the two albums miss the point; Smith's work is an ongoing process, and this, her first collection since 2000, reflects her post-9/11 observations.
William Blake, Smith's greatest influence, also saw word, music and image as a continuum. Trampin' evokes Blake's spirit directly with "My Blakean Year" and indirectly by positioning itself as a battle between good (peace, love and hope) and evil (war, hatred and despair) couched in biblical terms.
Using the potent symbols of gold and roses and the perfect love between a mother and child as leitmotifs through the album, Smith keeps hammering away at the theme that the Garden of Eden itself is under siege in biblical Mesopotamia, transformed into the modern state of Iraq only in the last century. She uses the poet's vision to identify with the war's victims and mourns the destruction of ancient wisdom that went up in flames during the attack and the rampant looting that followed. Lenny Kaye's eloquent guitar playing provides the perfect aural accompaniment to Smith's revelations. -- John Swenson
Patti Smith performs at House of Blues on June 15.
The Hard Way
Atlanta-based bluesman Tinsley Ellis hits it hard from the first track of The Hard Way and doesn't let up throughout this entire release. Apropos the album title, "Still in the Game" features Ellis' gruff, impassioned vocals, cutting guitar and propulsive rhythm section, and its intensity recalls the late demon blues guitarist John Campbell in its relentlessness and darkness. Although few people matched Campbell in his bluesy pessimism, Ellis comes close with his music and lyrics such as "It'll be a dark day to remember/When I meet her other man" ("Her Other Man") and, "Gonna buy me a .22/Go downtown and shoot the hell out of you" ("And It Hurts").
The entire record walks the line between blues and rock with nods to Earl King ("And It Hurts" shuffles along like King's "Come On") and James Brown (the funky instrumental "Love Bomb"). Ellis' guitar varies from track to track, recalling late-60s/early-70s Eric Clapton, complete with wah-wah pedal in the slow lament "La La Land" or a strumming Taj Mahal in the acoustic "Her Other Man," and Buddy Guy in the slow-burning final track, "The Last Song."
It is refreshing to see a musician push himself as hard as Ellis does on this CD. On several tunes, however, his vocals sound tentative and don't match the confidence in the bent notes and runs coming from his guitar. His explosiveness and the range he shows on the album more than compensate for anything the vocals may lack. If you're going to go for the gusto like Tinsley Ellis does on The Hard Way, you might miss sometimes, but he hits more than enough to make this CD a worthwhile release. -- David Kunian
A Grand Don't Come for Free
On the second Streets release, A Grand Don't Come for Free, Mike Skinner (the man who is The Streets) tells the story of a pothead named Mike who loses a thousand dollars and his girlfriend. In a press release, Skinner refers to the album as an "opera," but it's more than just a concept album. It exhibits musical growth from his previous fusion of American hip-hop and British 2 Step/Garage, 2002's Original Pirate Material. Here, his sound isn't as self-consciously tough as hip-hop crowds might expect, but the tempos aren't as adrenalized as electronica-phobes may fear.
Skinner reveals storytelling talent, too. Cell phone conversations stymied by weak signals and battery failure are a problem for him throughout the album; communication, or the lack thereof, is key here. When technology doesn't stymie him, his own neuroses do; the album's first single, a glam-punk number called, "Fit But You Know It" depicts Skinner's communication breakdown as his inability to overcome immaturity and laziness. He seeks his answers from his friends instead of himself and grows angry when his expectations aren't met. As a musician, Skinner provides a cogent and witty portrayal of how an immature ego distorts reality and causes fits of paranoia and anger, particularly on "What Is He Thinking" and at the beginning of "Empty Cans." Skinner matures because he acts upon one of those fleeting epiphanies that some people miss. Skinner's album brilliantly encapsulates a pivotal moment in life and provides an interesting point worth pondering, and perhaps for some of us, worth trying. -- Reuben Brody