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Weekend Reissue Roundup

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Patti Smith: Horses   Lou Reed: Coney Island Baby (1976)   Jeff Buckley: Grace (1994)   Miles Davis: In A Silent Way (1968)

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
Patti Smith: Horses (1975)
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: Coney Island Baby (1976)
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: Grace (1994)
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
Miles Davis: In A Silent Way (1968)
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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  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com Michael J. West

    Well, I think In A Silent Way towers over Bitches Brew (although I like the latter too), but that doesn’t detract from the quality of your review. Well said!

  • godogg

    And I prefer Filles de Kilimanjaro, my favorite ’60s Miles. But this is one of those few times when “It’s all good” is actually true, ’cause it’s usually not, you know.

  • http://freewayjam.blogspot.com uao

    Actually, truth be told, Jack Johnson (from 1971, soundtrack to a documentary on the boxer) is by far and away my most played Davis album. McLaughlin’s greatest-ever moments, and Davis never sounded sassier or more in-your-face which I just plain dig.

    A wise move by any rock fan reading this who has any kind of serious interest in the broader spectrum of music would be to give any 1967-1972 albums a listen. Plus Birth of the Cool, or ‘Round Midnight, Kind of Blue or (especially) Sketches of Spain.

    Jack Johnson!

  • http://tubepinoy.blog-city.com/ Randy P/Tube Pinoy

    Uao, I think we are on the same wavelength so you make it difficult for me to post on music since you’ve been here longer than me. People will think I am copying you. Seriously, great post again. Jeff Buckley was an amazing singer and tragically, he’s gone like his father. Lou and Patti are the father and mother of punk rock. And when you only need to mention the first name of an artist because they were/are that great, then you’ll understand why people just say they listen to “Miles”.

  • http://freewayjam.blogspot.com uao

    Thanks Randy, for the kind words. I haven’t been here very long, just a few months.

    All of these are records I’m sure have been brought up at Blogcritics a million times before, but their re-issue gave me the chance to revisit them myself. I forgot how much I liked that Buckley disc until I spun it again, and Coney Island Baby was another I hadn’t heard in ages. The other two always were in some kind of rotation at my house, ever since I peeled off the shrink wrap long ago.