Land is the long past due collection of Patti Smith’s greatest hits, the joke being that she lucked into a radio hit once with a tune she almost didn’t record because it sounded too much like a pop song. Yet that hit, “Because the Night” was a song she carefully re-crafted in her own image, adding lyrics and a feminine attitude far removed from Bruce Springsteen’s world of Jersey greasers.
The fact that other songs from her early albums never charted is as elusive a mystery as there can be, because “Dancing Barefoot” (a gorgeous love trance that opens Land) and “Frederick” (a swirling spacey sonnet to late husband Fred Sonic Smith) have stood the test of time along with much of her work. Though Smith’s output since her mid-‘90s comeback has been equally engaging, a trio of singles released since then represents an assortment of styles and themes, which never caught the mainstream. They are all included here, along with early standouts like her career defining rendition of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” and her ode to society’s misfits “Rock N Roll Nigger”.
In a modern irony, the official single for Land is a slinky cover of Prince’s “When Doves Cry”, the number one song which kept Smith’s lone hit co-author Springsteen from achieving that singular position himself back when they duked it out on rock radio. While the song loses much of its funk, it also thankfully eschews the tinkling synthesizers, making Smith’s version sound purely sensual on one level (the way she moans “touch if you will my belly / Feel the way it trembles inside ”), and vaguely political as well as if this is her musical response to the Sept. 11th attack (as she wails “oh darling, doves are crying . . .”).
“When Doves Cry” is one of four new tracks on the two-disc collection, which covers Smith’s career from its embryonic stage to live shows from the band’s European and US tours last year. A very early recording, “Piss Factory”, a poem about slaving at a dead-end job backed by pianist Richard Sohl from her original band, has been cleaned up sonically so there is more of a balance between the two musicians than on the rare Mer Records single. Long a holy grail among collectors, the piece was recorded before Clive Davis signed Smith to Arista so most thought it unobtainable, but the prose poem—where Smith rails about her desire to “get on the train to New York City” and become a star and never return to her dreary life in New Jersey—is one of the stellar highlights on Land.
Much is made of the fact that fans were polled by Arista seeking feedback on which songs should be included in the first disc of the collection. As a longtime fan, I submitted a response to the record company, hoping to hear an impossibly hard-to-find B-side from 1978, and a live cover of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” from 1998, but my request went unheeded. It doesn’t matter as Arista did a commendable job without me, especially considering this is her swan song for a major label that apparently does not want to justify art for art’s sake any longer.
The other part of the collection was chosen and arranged by Smith and her band, and they picked wisely, with the modern call-to-arms “Dead City” as powerful as older kick out the jams rockers like “25th Floor”. A pair of sweet outtakes from her 1996 comeback album, one of them featuring the twin guitars of CBGB alum Tom Verlaine on electric and the late Jeff Buckley on acoustic, show she’s got plenty of ideas still floating around. She confirms that with the newest song, a percussion-happy odyssey about our unending quest for knowledge called “Higher Learning”, showcasing Smith’s surprisingly coherent clarinet playing.
Smith and band (they’re no longer the Patti Smith Group, even though guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty have been glued to her from the start) will be touring this summer to support their legacy. Uninitiated fans should do their part to support them in person, because Smith is such a believer in symbolism that the liner notes make one pause. Before retiring from the music business in 1979 to raise a family, she called her album Wave (as in goodbye) but no one outside her inner circle knew. In the closing notes on Land, she writes: “I leave you this work . . . Farewell, friends.” Whatever she means, this collection is cause to celebrate an artist whose vision is as inspiring as most commercial radio play lists are not.