Music

Patti Smith: Trampin'

More pertinent to Trampin' than her previous albums themselves is the sheer authority her 30 critically lauded years allows her to bring to whatever she attempts.


Patti Smith

Trampin'

Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 2004-04-27
UK Release Date: 2004-04-26
Amazon
iTunes

It's certainly meant as a compliment when in reviewing any new Patti Smith record, critics call her a "rock 'n' roll poet" or a "priestess", but it has the effect of embalming her, promising that listening to her albums will be like a dutiful trip to English class or church. Sure, she frequently erupts into spoken-word mantras, incantory phrases that seem to be straining for something primal, seeking to make sheer repetition mystical. And her phrasing occasionally has the stilted cadences of poetry slams and creative writing seminars. And yes, this album has a song called "My Blakean Year". So, okay, maybe she encourages this label, but that doesn't mean it need be slavishly applied.

Also, it's probably meant to remind readers of Smith's claim to eternal significance that her revelatory 1975 debut album Horses is invariably mentioned; however, this, too, tends to distract us from the work at hand, redirecting us to a record that exists at an ineffable stratum with such albums as Exile on Main St. and Are You Experienced? and London Calling, albums so repeatedly rewarding and massively important, so fundamental to the evolution of rock that they annihilate anything compared to them. For years, Bob Dylan has been subject to this problem, with each of his new releases withering in the shadow of Blood on the Tracks.

It's the same for Smith. Relating any of her recent albums to Horses immediately begs the question, Why aren't I listening to Horses instead of this? There's no way to exhaust the potential of that classic; any invocation of it is a de facto demand to consider it afresh. Mentioning it in reviews is ultimately a disservice to the record actually under consideration. And even though there's a good chance no one would be paying any attention at all to Smith's releases if not for Horses, her recent albums probably ought to be judged on their own particular merits and not been seen as mere afterthoughts, distant echoes of legend. Besides, if you were to compare Trampin' with one of her previous albums, Radio Ethiopia or Easter would likely seem much more apt. As with those albums, the songs can seem to stretch to unjustifiable, indulgent lengths, the limited chord palette and the rudimentary/freeform song structures feels less like inspired primitivism than a disappointing lack of musical imagination and the lyrics less compellingly impressionistic than they are stridently sententious. But that comparison is unfair, too -- Smith's weaker albums provide just as convenient and misleading a template as her best one.

More pertinent to Trampin' than her previous albums themselves is the sheer authority her 30 critically lauded years allows her to bring to whatever she attempts. The confidence is evident everywhere, and compels you to listen even when it seems like there's nothing there to sustain such brazenness. The opening track, "Jubilee", lumbers along at a medium tempo with a confident authority, Smith's voice sounding as resounding as ever, under exquisite control as she calibrates it to the expression of a diverse array of emotion -- tenderness, zeal, regret, joy, anticipation, all communicated with subtle nuances in timbre. Even flat lines like "Let freedom ring" are able to convey something surprising with each new iteration.

"Gandhi", a slow-building nine-plus minute epic encouraging political activism exemplifies this confidence. It's clear that she's completely invested to the words she sings, giving them unmistakable passion and not a single trace of embarrassment or uncertainty. So when she shouts, "Long live revolution!" it doesn't sound trite, it feels like a call to arms. However, the music, with its long, repetitious crescendo is so hypnotizing, it makes it seem as though Smith is suggesting that revolutionary fervor is understood best as a trance state. This makes her stance seem a bit ambiguous, making us wonder if she means to advocate revolution to the point of being committed past the necessity of thought, or reveal revolutionaries as a bit brainwashed, no longer consciously committed to a cause but centripetally sucked into it by an irresistible rhythm, an aural analogue for mob frenzy. "Radio Baghdad", the other extended track, attempts to view American imperialism from the ground level, employing the point of view of Iraqis amidst the wreckage. As dubious as that might sound (won't that be preachy? how in the world can she imagine what Iraqis might feel?) it ends up being pretty compelling, with Smith taking chances few others would ever think to venture. You end up forgetting about the implausible premise, carried along by the conviction in her voice.

While Smith's voice teases out unexpected depth from quotidian phrases and familiar, all-too-justified outrage with current American politics, the band's music can't do the same with the vintage rock riffs recycled here. Gentle, discursive tracks like "Mother Rose", the peaceful, meditative "Cartwheels", and the lullaby-like acoustic ballad "Trespasses" are balanced against more straightforward rockers such as "Stride of the Mind" and "Cash", which helps keep the moods on Trampin' varied. But the music on these tracks is a bit too no-nonsense, almost polite in its steady familiarity. "Peaceable Kingdom" is about as inconspicuous as anything you'd hear on a Sarah McLachlan record; it seems written to be NPR bumper music. These staid, comfortable songs undermine the plea for activism and involvement expressed everywhere else on the record, offering listeners an easy way out -- into the distracted, disengaged enjoyment adult-alternative radio reliably provides -- from confronting the challenging aspects of her message here.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image