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Music Review: Patti Smith – Outside Society

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If you are looking for the definitive overview of Patti Smith’s legendary career, the just released Legacy Recordings compilation Outside Society is not it. The closest thing out there to that sort of comprehensive retrospective of Smith’s groundbreaking work, complete with prerequisite rare tracks and alternate takes, remains the Land (1975 – 2002) compilation — and that set focuses mainly on her years with Arista Records.

However, as a brief introduction to Patti Smith, Outside Society works well enough as a sampler. You might even call this album a kind of greatest hits set from an artist who really didn’t have any (save for “Because The Night,” the collaboration with Bruce Springsteen that remains her most famous song).

Outside Society (which takes its name from a lyric to her song “Rock And Roll Nigger”) is mostly notable because it draws equally from all phases of Patti Smith’s 35 years as a recording artist. It brings material from both the Arista and Columbia Records eras together for the very first time on a single disc.

The only real complaint here, is that by following the sort of “greatest hits” mentality that apparently went into the making of this collection (despite the active participation of Patti Smith herself), Outside Society really only skims the surface. The way that longer, more expressive pieces like “Birdland” and “Land” (from Patti Smith’s brilliant 1975 debut album Horses), are glossed over in favor of shorter, more radio ready songs is likely to be a disappointment for longtime fans.

It is tone poems like these that helped make Patti Smith’s reputation as punk rock’s original reigning queen of spoken word, stream of consciousness poetry in the seventies. Here, they are overlooked to focus on more traditionally structured rock songs like “Because The Night” and “Summer Cannibals,” as well as her cover versions of songs like Kurt Cobain’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Roger McGuinn’s “So You Want To Be A Rock And Star.” In that respect, Outside Society really only presents one side of this multifaceted artist.

Even so, there is still a lot to like here. Outside Society covers all the bases in terms of being a well rounded collection of the hits. From “Gloria” and “Because The Night” to “Dancing Barefoot” and “People Have The Power,” the song selection does a great job of gathering her career highlights together on a single disc.

Patti Smith’s poetic talents do not go completely unnoticed here either. The inclusion of songs like “Pissing In A River,” “Free Money” and “Aint’ It Strange” accomplishes that trick nicely (if too briefly), as does her blazing performance of “Rock And Roll Nigger” (which is thankfully unedited here). Patti Smith’s gift for interpretation is best showcased here with her version of Cobain’s “Teen Spirit,” which is broken down into a minimalist dirge that is simply spellbinding.

Longtime fans will also appreciate the inclusion of liner notes written by Patti Smith herself, where she offers her own impressions on each of the eighteen songs in this collection. As a career defining anthology, Outside Society is anything but complete. For that, fans would be far better served with Land, or by just picking up a copy of Horses (still her best). But for first timers in search of a quick test drive, you could do a lot worse than this.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • jc mosquito

    Where’s Radio Ethiopia? Where’s …….. phooey – start at the beginning, I suppose, but which facet of Patti Smith are we talking about? Even that Bockris and Bayley bio from 1999 misses it in more than a few places.

    Listen to Horses (with bonus tracks etc.), then Radio Ethiopia, then all the rest. Even the dvd dream of life (from 2007) only gets a part of it. When she passes away (not any time soon, I hope), I think she’ll be remembered as a very influential artist of the 20th/21st century.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Agreed JC. As I noted in the review, the Land compilation is the one that comes closest to capturing the full breadth of her artistic genius. This “greatest hits” is really more about her rock star side, and on that level it still works.

    But yeah, I’ll take Birdland or Radio Ethipoia over People Have The Power any day (much as I do enjoy the latter as well).

    Like I said in the review though, if you really want to know what Patti is all about, just go buy Horses.

    -Glen

  • http://www.pattismith.net/ patti Smith

    hello
    Thank you for your review which was very thoughtful. I spent a year putting the Land package together and it remains my favorite. It was an expensive undertaking and never really broke through. Outside Society disc is offered as a more affordable and accessible alternative. The longer songs, which are often my favorites could not fit on a 70 minute CD. I know that people who appreciate those pieces will find them. O.S. is as you said could be called a sampler, done with the newcomer in mind, but still presented with integrity. It is funny to have a greatest hits album when we only had one… But your words made me happy. The obscure pieces, the epics, the improvisations are what we do best and I am so glad you appreciate them. all the best. patti smith

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    If this is really you, Patti (as I suspect it is, but you never really know with the anonymous nature of these dang intermets), your response is the highest compliment I could have hoped for. So thank you (I think…).

    If that’s indeed the case, I’m also still looking for someone to write a forward for my Neil Young book (out next year).

    Interested? [Personal contact info deleted]

    -Glen

  • andrea candiani

    my simple point: does it matter it’s not complete, etc…?
    if you want complete, please buy all the records, simple.
    I am thrilled anytime anything of Patti Smith gets released.
    I mean, these days it’s all beyonce and rubbish like that. so, hurrah, a “new” cd, yes yes and I look forward to more.
    this is art, it’s not just music.
    maybe a tour…. in Australia please?
    :-)

  • david rose

    In a world starving for genuine art, any offering from Patti Smith is nourishing.