In the intervening years between her previous studio album, 2004’s Trampin’, and now, Patti Smith’s cache has gone up considerably. Not because of her music however, but because of her prose. Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, detailing her and Robert Mapplethorpe’s early years in Manhattan is a best-seller and multiple-award winner. In fact her 2007 album of covers, Twelve, was somewhat disappointing. But, with probably more attention on her at any time since the 1970s, Patti has produced her best album in years with Banga.
Patti Smith has been recording fairly regularly since the mid-90s, after husband Fred “Sonic” Smith passed away. While each of the resulting albums has had moments of brilliance, often they were marred by lifeless production and/or unfocussed material. Although Patti is working with the same core band she has been with for years (Lenny Kaye-guitar, J.D. Daugherty-drums, Tony Shanahan-bass) something magical has happened while recording this set of 12 songs.
The album opens with a dramatic piano chord to start off Amerigo. “We were going to see the world”, Smith sings/recites. And indeed she has. The accompanying liner notes explain how trips to Paris, Italy, Russia and elsewhere have inspired the songs and the sounds here. Appropriately, Amerigo is named after Amerigo Vespucci the explorer who gave his name to the New World. The track itself is thrilling, especially its use of strings. Guest guitarist Jack Petruzzelli contributes a solo. He one of several guests including former Television guitarist Tom Verlaine, Patti’s children Jackson and Jesse, and Johnny Depp.
Patti and the band have produced this album themselves and the result is warmer, more organic-sounding than anything they’ve released in years. Smith’s voice has improved with age and she sounds great whether reciting the poetic lyrics to Tarkovsky, singing the heartfelt lyric inspired by the death of Amy Winehouse in This Is The Girl or belting out the intense title track.
The record is littered with highlights…the 1950s-ish This Is The Girl is particularly touching, especially when Patti sings, “so much for cradling a smouldering bird”. Banga and Constantine’s Dream recall the more free-form moments on Horses and Radio Ethiopia while Verlaine turns in one of his patented jagged, exhilarating guitar solos on Nine, a tune that conjures up images of The Doors. Constantine’s Dream is particularly notable. Parts of the 10 minute epic were recorded in Italy with a group called Casa del Vento which includes steel guitar and accordion. It’s a dramatic, dark track that sounds like a combination between Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir and Smith’s own Radio Ethiopia.
After that bit of musical brilliance, the record comes to a close with a lullaby-like version of Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush featuring Jesse Smith on piano and Jackson on guitar. A children’s choir adds to the family vibe.
Throughout the album Smith’s voice and lyrics are poetic, poignant and powerful. She and her band don’t rock out quite like they did in the 70s but Banga proves that there’s still plenty of creativity left in the words and music of Patti Smith, her band and her extended family.
Click here to listen to Nine from Banga: n