Artist: Album (label, release date) 1-5 stars
Patti Smith: Horses (BMG International; August 16, 2005) *****
Lou Reed: Coney Island Baby (BMG International; August 16, 2005) ****
Jeff Buckley: Grace (Sony International; August 16, 2005) *****
Miles Davis: In A Silent Way (Sony International; August 16. 2005) *****
Titanic major label Sony/BMG continues its back-catalog consolidation efforts, re-issuing for the international market key albums that had been previously released on labels they’ve recently acquired (Arista, RCA, Columbia, and Columbia respectively). While none of these titles have ever been particularly hard to find, they are interesting titles worth revisiting; all are recommended to listeners just starting out with these artists. None of these re-issues add bonus tracks or new packaging, but bonus tracks from prior releases are retained. The covers are a bit tacky.
Patti Smith: Horses
Horses made a real splash when it appeared in 1975; it was one of the cornerstones of the gathering-steam New York Punk movement, and it was also a landmark hard rock album for a female singer, something that was still rare enough at the time to be noteworthy. It has been called proto-punk and punk itself for its jagged, ragged, clanging guitars and rhythms and its sense of anarchy and abandon. That’s not too far off, but there’s more to it; it’s also art-rock in the boho New York sense of the word, it’s garage rock, it’s beatnik-revival poetry, it’s easily one of the most essential rock albums of the 1970’s. It has few antedecents, although it invokes the Velvet Underground (John Cale produced it) MC5, and the Stooges in some respects. For Patti Smith’s provocative lyrics, rant/raps, persona, and stage presence there were no forebears; she was the first. Deborah Harry owes something to Smith the singer, Sonic Youth owes some debt as a band. As for the songs on the disc, each is a classic. “Gloria” is an audacious re-write of the Van Morrison original, turned into a shaggy dog tale of lesbian seduction atop Lenny Kaye’s chaotic and busy guitar while buiding a juggernaut of speed that reaches spine-tingling intensity when they get to the G-L-O-R-I-A part. “Redondo Beach” is a reggae and a tale of murder, also with lesbian overtones. “Land: Horses/Land of a Thousand Dances/La Mer (De)” is an epic suite that begins with Smith’s abusurdist-beatnik rap building from a mumble to a shout while Kaye pumps his guitar behind her before busting into the Strangeloves’ classic hardcore garage band rocker with Smith’s very greatest vocal, full of nuance, sass, spit, and insinuations. It’s impossible to praise this album enough; for those who never heard it, it will change your outlook about rock, even now, 30 years later. Smith later married the late Fred “Sonic” Smith of MC5. She released three more albums before going into semi-retirement in 1981. Since then, she has released the occasional album; most are interesting, even if they don’t reach the primal heights this one did. “My Generation” is the bonus track.
Lou Reed: Coney Island Baby
Lou Reed, one of the only performers of the 60’s to retain street credibility in the New York punk world of the 70’s was actually in some danger of losing some credibility in 1975. After Transformer, Berlin, and the live Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, which had established his vision, persona, sound, and direction in the early 70’s, he suddenly seemed to lose it. Sally Can’t Dance from 1974 was pivitol; it was controversial among his core fans. Its horn sections, session players, and clear rock production seemed like commercial moves. In 1975, he released a quicky live profit-taker, and Metal Machine Music, 4 sides of equal-length tape squelch, buzz, and noise, which was mostly unlistenable and pissed off almost everyone who bought it. Reed himself was playing up an almost cartoon image of junkie at this time, and he seemed to be losing his grip on the music. With Coney Island Baby, Reed wisely reeled himself in, and returned to the simple basics: guitar, bass, drums, and vocal with personal, literate lyrics. Coney Island Baby heralded in a string of consistently satisfying Reed albums in what has always been a wildly erratic career. The title cut is the most emblematic; warm, nakedly honest, understated, lyrical, it recalls the Lou Reed of “Sweet Jane” and “Stephanie Says”. “Crazy Feeling” and “She’s My Best Friend” show Reed at his most tender, “Charlie’s Girl” and “Nobody’s Girl” keep the slimy, seedy subject material of his earlier albums, but infuses it with a loose, humorous air that almost makes one think of Bob Dylan. As Reed albums go, this is one of his better ones, arguably one of his best.
Jeff Buckley: Grace
Jeff Buckley appeared seemingly out of nowhere in 1994 and immediately became instantly recognizable by his tender, trembling, operatic vocals and the epic instrumental arrangements behind him that rose and fell and swept and cascaded and hovered with an almost Led Zeppelin-esque granduer. And then he was gone. Buckley was controversial in his short moment; either you accepted the bombast and emotion and rode with it, or you didn’t. What his fans liked is evident on the album’s opener, “Mojo Pin” which sails in on a midnight tide of guitar and Buckley’s high pitch sighing vocal, before launching into a muted, arty, lonesome ballad with guitar effects and upfront drums while Buckley gives an amazing vocal performance that soars to the rafters and galvanizes below the knees. One of the most ambitious albums by a folkie since the 1960’s, Grace is full of such moments, like the forlorn “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” and the subtleties of “Last Goodbye”. The estranged son of doomed folkie Tim Buckley, who is a similarly challenging listen, Jeff Buckley himself was doomed, drowning in the Mississippi River in a peculiar incident that remains murky. Grace will remain his legacy; one of the most distinctive and original albums of the 1990’s.
Miles Davis: In A Silent Way
In A Silent Way is a landmark jazz album from one of modern jazz’ definitive performers, trumpet player Miles Davis. It represented the third album in a series that took Davis out of conventional jazz and into the realm of jazz-rock fusion, which would characterize his 1967-1971 output and ultimately point him toward jazz-funk in 1972. In 1967, Miles In The Sky was the first sign; it featured Herbie Hancock’s electric piano as primary co-star, and shifted the beat into rock time. It also snuck George Benson’s electric guitar onto one track. In 1968, he released Filles de Kilimanjaro , which represented the fence between rock and jazz. On that album, you can literally hear his quintet break free from jazz tradition and explore the new world of fusion. In A Silent Way, from late 1968 is where they have made the transformation; no longer modern jazz, the fully electric album is spacy and funky, with organ and keyboards fully integrated with electric bass and guitar. Despite the fusion, however, this isn’t rock ‘n’ roll; it is an entirely new jazz, full of improvisation and interplay. “Shhh/Peaceful” begins by hovering in space, organ heavy, with swirling guitar modalities as Davis enters in muted form. Joe Zawinul noodles, John McLaughlin picks lightly, Tony Williams gets a groove on with percussion, and out of disparate sources a momentum emerges as Davis turns on the volume. “In A Silent Way/It’s About That Time” is even more funky, powered by Dave Holland’s bass, while McLaughlin’s modal playing is rapturous; Davis is at his moody best. Heavy studio work went into editing and assembling tapes from the session which upset jazz purists (as did the rock instruments in the first place), but the work, done by Davis and longtime arranger Teo Macero, is masterful in its own right and not unusual in the late 1960’s. Following In A Silent Way would be Davis’ greatest fusion album of all, Bitches Brew, in 1969. Jack Johnson followed, the most “rock” Davis ever got. In the late 1960’s, Davis was a frequent performer at the Fillmore East/West rock venues; anyone who enjoyed other Fillmore staples like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane would instantly love this.
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