We gave it an A
On what is only her eighth album in 25 years, it’s easy to think of Patti Smith as the anti-Santana. She and Carlos are both in their early 50s and work under the guiding hand of Arista chief Clive Davis, yet they seem to be visiting us from vastly different planets. Rather than seek an infusion of trendy blood from MTV-friendly acts and producers, as Santana did, Smith recorded Gung Ho with her own band and producer Gil Norton, best known for his work with now-unfashionable alt-rock acts. The material was all written by Smith and her musicians, not song doctors or industry smoothies. The guest players were plucked not from several different Billboard charts but from sundry old schools, and range from former Television guitarist Tom Verlaine to ex-Husker Du-er Grant Hart. Gung Ho is so antithetical to Santana’s Supernatural that it could have been dubbed Corporeal.
And that’s precisely the album’s strength. A work that neither re-creates the music Smith made during the punk era of the ’70s nor panders to the great god of SoundScan, Gung Ho is simply a collection of hypnotic, human rock & roll that extols such seemingly antiquated virtues as moral fiber, history, and love as spirituality. What’s even more remarkable is that at least for its duration, Gung Ho makes the idea of such rock uprightness feel timeless and not a bygone notion from the days of vinyl LPs.
Until recently, Smith herself seemed on the verge of being a bygone notion. After nearly a decade of silence, she returned in 1996 with Gone Again, a beautiful, somber set of urban Appalachia. A year later, Peace and Noise found Smith once more immersed in a sonic racket. But the results were mostly murky, as if she were still getting her rock & roll toes wet again. Whatever the reason — touring, a fresh blast of energy, her new beau (Oliver Ray, also a guitarist in her band), pressures from her label — Gung Ho is a tighter, more focused work, as well as a renewal of faith.
In the way it circles different facets of her music, the album is nearly an alternate-universe hits package. The kicky, spiky determination of her early work is resurrected in the ”Glitter in Their Eyes,” an antimaterialism firecracker, and ”Persuasion,” whose circus organ harks back to Smith’s past and ’60s garage rock (the original punk). Her anthemic-rock side, which has tripped her up in the past, flowers here in the stern, marchlike ”One Voice,” while her love of devotional chants returns in the transcendental-medication love hymns ”Lo and Beholden” and ”China Bird.” The folksy quality of Gone Again is here too in ”Libbie’s Song,” a rustic, fiddle-laced foot stomper sung in the voice of General George Custer’s wife.
Younger readers are forgiven for rolling their eyes at that last one, but daft-punk moments are part of what makes the Smith oeuvre so singular. Loopy bordering on labored are the woefully obvious antislavery, antidrug diatribe ”Strange Messengers” and the nearly 12-minute title track, literally the life of Ho Chi Minh set to a rumbly dirge. As ”Upright Come” also reveals, her passion for uplifting and inspiring listeners is almost messianic. Thankfully, the glue that holds Gung Ho together is its shapely songs and Smith’s band, who play with the robustness of seasoned oarsmen. The guitars of Ray and Lenny Kaye aren’t the battering rams of contemporary rock. Instead, they caress and snake around Smith’s voice.
As for that voice — a fierce if unvarnished instrument — Smith has never sounded better. She sings with both a new vigor (a burnished snarl has crept into her voice) and a new tenderness. As hectoring as she can be in ”Strange Messengers,” she can sound equally supple while meditating on a nighttime stroll with her lover in ”Gone Pie.”
Visiting Smith last year in a Manhattan studio where she was cutting this album, I asked her about the current state of rock and theories that it was all but extinct. ”Well,” she said, a trace of polite indignation in her voice, ”we’re still alive, and we’re still making rock & roll.” Even as traditional roots rock becomes an increasingly niche genre, Gung Ho more than lives up to Smith’s declaration. A