Sharps & Flats

Patti Smith explodes on "Gung Ho," the best record since she returned to rock. Joni Mitchell, meanwhile, collapses under jazz pretense and a ravaged voice.

Topics: Patti Smith, Music,

Sharps & Flats

Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith were born three years apart, Mitchell in 1943 and Smith in 1946. Their debuts were separated by seven years: Mitchell’s flowery, eponymous first album was released in 1968; Smith’s fiery “Horses,” in 1975. Both have grown into roles as elder stateswomen of rock, with Smith serving as den mother for angry, young post-punks and Mitchell’s “Blue” acting as a cornerstone for successive generations of waifish songwriters.

Their new albums were released on the same day this week. The parallels end there: Smith’s “Gung Ho,” featuring a baker’s dozen of new songs and her longtime backing band, is a wild burst of adrenalin and beauty; Mitchell’s overwrought “Both Sides Now” is an orchestral collection of standards (and a pair of Mitchell’s own classics) that collapses under the weight of her jazz pretensions and decimated voice.

“Gung Ho” is Smith’s third release since she returned after a long hiatus from recording music with “Gone Again” (1996). It’s a fuller, more exhilarating effort than that album or “Peace and Noise,” both of which focused on death and loss. On “Gung Ho,” Smith sings, screams, moans, groans and roars about Mother Teresa, Ho Chi Minh, slavery, Gen. George Custer, Salome, war, redemption and honor. And with a sharper, more focused band than she has had since her heady CBGB days in the mid- and late 1970s, Smith’s musical vision matches her poetics. With the band — longtime collaborators Lenny Kaye (guitars) and Jay Dee Daugherty (drums), Tony Shanahan (bass) and Smith’s boyfriend, Oliver Ray (guitars) — Smith veers from anthems to open-ended jams to downright funky ditties. And the handful of guests, such as Television’s Tom Verlaine and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe (both of whom lend a hand on the charging, radio-friendly alterna-rock number “Glitter in Their Eyes”), always adds to the mix.

But it’s Smith’s voice that is the best instrument of all. On “New Party,” a funked-up tune that wouldn’t sound out of place in the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ repertoire, Smith reaches back to her neo-bop roots, scatting free verse, reaching down to growl and leaping up to soar. On “Lo and Beholden,” she plays a timeless seductress performing the dance of seven veils, purring about how her seventh and last veil “will cost you.” On the Mother Teresa-inspired “One Voice” (a tune she introduced at this year’s Tibet House benefit) Smith brays with such conviction that she manages to make lines about the garden of consciousness and fertile seeds of charity sound inspiring instead of overwrought. Even Smith’s missteps — “Strange Messengers,” in which the singer fashions herself as the ghost of African-American slaves admonishing today’s crackheads, is one — are noteworthy for their passion. Twenty-five years have passed since Smith first began singing her poetry on New York’s Lower East Side, and her voice is still rich with power and conviction and fresh with vigor and life.

And then there’s Mitchell. Her voice was always a more precious instrument than Smith’s often blunt one, and it has aged far less gracefully. The contrast is painful: Whereas Smith has preserved her voice and found new ways to communicate her passions, Mitchell has ravished her once otherworldly soprano with years of heavy smoking. She’s now a dusty-voiced alto without her old vocal reach or stamina. On “Both Sides Now,” Mitchell’s range is not so much truncated as it is decimated. At times, you can hear her gasping for breath. And while there is ample precedent for an aging singer’s refashioning her voice to powerful effect (Billie Holiday is the one Mitchell’s publicist is pushing), Mitchell’s scratchy roughness just sounds like wasted talent.

The arrangements don’t help, either. The London Symphony Orchestra’s florid string sections and stray piccolos in “You’re My Thrill” and “Stormy Weather” are schlocky. And Mitchell, an artist who once used jazz musicians like Jaco Pastorius to such great effect on her pop albums, squanders guests like Wayne Shorter on “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me” and Herbie Hancock on “Sometimes I’m Happy.”

Mitchell’s own compositions provide the lowest moments. Her album is intended to “trace the arc of a modern romantic relationship,” but the lyrics from “Both Sides Now” (“I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now”) are hardly on a par with words by Harold Arlen or Rodgers and Hart. The other tune, “A Case of You,” just shows how far gone her voice is. On the original version of “A Case of You,” Mitchell wrapped her voice around the word “Canada” and stretched it into describing the whole tortured history of a dysfunctional relationship. On the new version the word is a brusque drop-off, a quick throwaway.

The adage says you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but it would be an oversight not to mention the images on both albums. The cover of Mitchell’s new album is a self-portrait of the singer, cheek in hand, cigarette between her fingers, a glass of booze in front of her. It’s a defiant gesture, but ultimately self-involved and more interesting to the artist than the audience. Smith’s new album, for the first time, does not feature a picture of the sinewy singer; instead, there’s a wartime photo of Smith’s recently deceased father, who, Smith says, was “gung-ho” when he left for World War II. It’s a complicated gesture — Smith is nothing if not a pacifist — but also a confrontational, challenging and touching one. And that’s the difference.

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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