Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Horses/Horses Patti Smith Tells The Same Musical Story Twice.

The Good: Strangely, many of the same that made it celebrated
The Bad: Strangely, many of the same that made me ambivalent to it, Timely elements
The Basics: A two-disc set that might appeal to Patti Smith fans, Horses/Horses falls flat to a more general artist raised on strong female rockers.

It takes a lot for an artist to revisit their work, especially after thirty years. Often an artist does that because they either have something different or additional they wanted to say or because they are broke and need the cash. I want to believe that in the case of Patti Smith's album Horses/Horses (the more common name for the Horses 30th Anniversary Legacy Edition) it is the former, but one has some serious trouble believing that after thirty years, Smith just had to get out that "Redondo Beach is a beach where women love other women" ("Redondo Beach"). Little additions like that to the beginning of songs is emblematic of the changes made on this two disc set.

Actually, "changes" is somewhat misleading. Horses/Horses is a two disc set. It includes the 1975 album Horses (reviewed here!) and the 2005 live recording of Horses. Yes, Patti Smith released a second album of the identical material she released back in 1975, but in a live version. Given that I did a pretty thorough review of Horses (1975), the rest of this review will focus on the 2005 live version. If you're interested in the bottomline, it's this: there is not enough that is different or spectacular in the live recreation of the album to justify buying the two-disc set. Casual fans will do better with the original and die-hard fans are just as likely to get bored by the live version as non-fans.

With nine tracks, clocking in at 67:31, Horses is an extended recreation of one of the most recognized works of Patti Smith. Eight of the nine tracks are co-written by Patti Smith and only "My Generation" did not have her lyrics. She is not credited with playing any instruments on the album; it appears for the live performance(s) from which Horses was made, she did not perform on a musical instrument. Similarly, she is not credited with any sort of production credit, but one imagines all of the political commentary throughout Horses is hers. Moreover, one assumes that if she had been unhappy with the original material, the way she remade it after thirty years would be more to her liking.

There is a certain irony in the 2005 version of Horses; on the original version, I complained about the vocals and praised the instrumentals. On the 2005 live version, the guitars are noisy and sloppy on tracks like "Birdland," while Smith's vocals are surprisingly sharp and clear. Moreover, Smith illustrates a sense of vocal range that she did not present on the original.

From the moment Smith opens the album with the lines "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine / Melting in a pot of thieves wild card up my sleeve / Thick heart of stone my sins my own / They belong to me. Me" ("Gloria (In Excelsis Deo)") it is clear that Patti Smith has something to say and she is (largely not trapped in traditional paradigms to say it). While she is still a female rocker (who appears to be heterosexual) singing about making women hers, she is defiant of many of the other conventions of rock and roll that made her a huge influence on a whole generation of women rockers.

Patti Smith is a political radical, which is something I like quite a bit about her. Unfortunately, it also dates Horses/Horses. On "My Generation," she shouts out about George Bush (referencing George W. Bush, not George H.W. Bush) and she makes a perfectly good observation. But, as that administration wanes (at least until elections are suspended because of some threat to national security), we are ready to move on. Yet, every time this disc plays, Bush will be her adversary. One can almost hear the relationship in the horrified way she sings "The son, the sign, the cross, like the shape of a tortured woman, / The true shape of a tortured woman, the mother standing / In the doorway letting her song, no longer presidents but prophets. / They're all dreaming they're going to bear the prophet . . ." ("Birdland") to the way she later shouts out about George W. Bush.

Vocally, though, Horses is a real mixed bag, though it does show more vocal development than the original version did. I knew Patti Smith could sing from "E-Bow The Letter," a song she sang for R.E.M. on New Adventures In Hi-Fi (reviewed here!). So when I heard the original Horses after that, I felt timid to judge the vocals; after all, her voice could develop and her technique could improve in the twenty-five years between the tracks. And on "Kimberly," she illustrates exactly what I suspected she was capable of. She has impressive range and she sings melodically, sweetly even. Similarly, "Break It Up" has Patti Smith singing beautifully and with a very silken, smooth quality to her voice.

But she shouts through "My Generation," which to be fair is supposed to be an angry-sounding track as it is all about rebellion. Even so, when she shrieks on this version of "Horses," it generally sounds more noisy and less rebellious and angry than it originally did.

In a similar vein, the instrumentals lack the polish of a studio album. As a result, the drums overwhelm "Break It Up" and parts of "Land: Horses Land Of A Thousand Dances Le Mer De." And ultimately, I sat asking myself, what is truly the point? Smith adds a callback to "Gloria: In Excelsis Deo" to "Land: Horses Land Of A Thousand Dances Le Mer De," which extends the song to over seventeen minutes. She tells a little story about Jim Morrison before one of the live versions as well as adding an additional line or shout out here or there. But, is it worth it?

For me, the answer is no. Listening to Patti Smith growl and yell a few more f-words in "Land: Horses Land Of A Thousand Dances Le Mer De" doesn't impress me and ultimately, my feeling is she got it more right the first time around.

It is perfectly possible that people who grew up listening to Patti Smith will love this two-disc set and decry my marginalization of her work (just as I am sure female artists who were influenced by her work would). However, as someone who grew up on the artists that Smith had an effect on, it is - frankly - hard to go back. Those who grew up listening to female rock stars will likely find Horses/Horses a bit more pedestrian than they would like, even if we can acknowledge that Smith was the influence them.

And ultimately, I found myself bored listening to Horses/Horses in high rotation for days and the live version just didn't kick enough to make me want to keep hearing it in the future. I suspect many people in the under thirty-five crowd would react the same way.

The best track is "Kimberly," the low point is the almost indistinct "Elegie."

For other powerful female artists, please check out my reviews of:
Days Of Open Hand - Suzanne Vega
21 - Adele
Aerial - Kate Bush


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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