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Banga is Patti Smith's first collection of original material since 2004's critically-acclaimed Trampin'. The album was recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York City and produced by Banga is Patti Smith's first collection of original material since 2004's critically-acclaimed Trampin'. The album was recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York City and produced by Patti Smith and her band: Tony Shanahan, Jay Dee Daugherty and her long-time collaborator Lenny Kaye. Featured guests include Tom Verlaine, Jack Petruzzelli, Smith's son Jackson and daughter Jesse Paris. Inspired by Smith's unique dreams and observations, Banga's poetic lyrics are a reflection of our complex world a world that is rife with chaos and beauty. Praised for her storytelling abilities, Smith has crafted an album that captures a wide range of human experience. There is an exploratory spirit in the songs that make up Banga, including a melodic overture imagining the voyage of Amerigo Vespucci to the New World in 1497 ("Amerigo"), a rock song for the people of Japan in the wake of last years earthquake ("Fuji-san"), a classic ballad in memory of Amy Winehouse ("This Is The Girl"), an improvised meditation on art and nature ("Constantine's Dream") as well as a birthday song written for her friend Johnny Depp ("Nine").
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In my estimation, Banga suffers from three separate but related problems. First, the lyrical content is a virtual catalog of Smith's esoteric enthusiasms. The first six songs alone deal with historical (the 15th-16th century explorer Amerigo Vespucci), literary (the writers Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Bulgakov), cultural (the singer Amy Winehouse and the actress Maria Schneider) and environmental (the 2011 earthquake in Japan) themes. This may have been very fascinating for her to ponder, write and perform but, at certain point (and that point comes very quickly), the relentless highmindedness of the material overtakes the album and an atmosphere of airlessness begins to prevail.
The second problem with Banga is that the album is, by and large, musically uninteresting. There are a diverse array of styles on display but very few of the songs stick with the listener (or at least this listener) for very long. Tellingly, the most musically interesting song on the album doesn't come from Smith and her band but instead is the Neil Young composition, "After the Gold Rush," which closes out the album.
The third, final and perhaps most significant problem is the song "Constantine's Dream". Clocking in at 10:19, "Constantine's Dream" ties together such disparate figures as St. Francis, the Roman Emperor Constantine and Christopher Columbus into a poetic narrative that takes up a considerable amount of time but never really gets anywhere. The long-form poem set to music is one of Smith's favorite devices (dating back to "Birdland" and "Land" on 1975's Horses) and, over time, has become her least effective. Every Smith release since 1996's Gone Again has featured one of these long-form poems in either the second-to-last or final position in the track listing. Tellingly, none of these would-be epics have survived in her permanent live repertory the way the lengthy Horses tracks continue to endure in repertory.
For all that, I will say that the release of Smith's book M-Train in 2015 has helped me to understand Banga a little better. M-Train is an exceedingly well-written literary journey which finds Smith traversing time and space to describe her life with her deceased husband, Fred 'Sonic' Smith, her artistic enthusiasms, her dreams and even her habit of drinking copious amounts of black coffee. Taken as a companion piece to M-Train, Banga begins to make more sense as further 'stations' on the M-Train. It's not enough to reclassify the album as a neglected masterpiece but it does put the album in a different context.
The special edition is beautiful, is like a poem book and also have a extra track, "Just Kids"with a very good collection of photos in black and white, a very interesting commentary about each song and the circumstance around the origin of each composition. Is not a simple "new" Patti Smith CD, is something more, a compilation of feelings over the world in a travel with no end. Serenity and wisdom. A good music for special people to try to communicate something more that simples sounds. A great work.
My inclination when hearing this latest work was to say "Welcome back, old friend." My feeling about Patti is whenever she turns up it's like a much-loved friend from high school. We need to get a cup of coffee and catch up at the nearest bistro (not Starbucks.)
I first saw Patti on TV on a Sunday night on WWOR channel 9 in the early 1970's referring to subway graffiti as new age Jackson Pollack. It was a black & white documentary of 3 artists speaking on New York City. I noted, "keep on eye on this girl."
Buy the deluxe edition if you can afford it for no other reason than the hardcovered booklet is a beautiful work of art - photographs, Patti's thoughts and process of what went into creating and recording the music, the lyrics. There's no need on my part to try to summarize or interpret. She's done all the heavy lifting. There are moments of the mystical - especially the discovery of the image of "Dream of Constantine." Buy the deluxe edition because it's a BOOK. Kindle will never replace the feeling of turning a page, looking at the images, running your fingers across the page for the first time feeling like silk, opening the book and cracking the spine. It's a gift. The lyrics - poems, really - and the process unfolding are what attracted me to Patti in the first place.
I'm reminded of a moment back in the beginning. I was sitting on the floor of the Gotham Book Mart browsing through Joris Huysman's "Las Bas" first edition. It was pissing down rain. Gotham would never throw you out, even if it was obvious you had no money.
At the front was a small tome, "Seventh Heaven" with Patti's scrawl on front. I bought that instead. I still have it - binding undone, signature fading, much loved and much read. Like "Witt," "Ha Ha Houdini," "Babel." (I got the Huysmans later when I cashed my pay check from E.J. Korvette's down the street where I was Christmas help.) Gotham Book Mart is long gone. Apparently Patti worked there at one point. They were always my "go-to" place for new Patti stuff. Their logo on a small carved wooden sign: "Wise men fish here." (Long live independent book shops!)
Now what about the music? Well, I've now been living with it for a week. It's not left my CD player or iPod. It's been playing non-stop. It's so atmospheric that no one song jumps out. It's a dream scape. It's so intuitive I can't stop listening. It's nearly a concept album - and I'm old enough to remember albums - where you put the needle down on the groove and let it engulf you. "Banga" sinks into your muscles, sinews, spinal column. It's evocative. Like opium.
Patti's music took a turn towards the personal around "Dream of Life," the album recorded in partnership with her late husband Fred "Sonic" Smith. (When the heck is the R&R Hall of Fame going to induct the MC5? Storm the bastille of rock commercialism! The people have the power!) Her song to her Godson, "Seneca," recalls her lullaby to her own son Jackson on "Dream of Life."
With "Gone Again" Patti dealt with the deaths of her husband, her brother, Richard Sohl, and even Kurt Cobain. She needed to write it out, put it out there. There's something akin with "Banga." Cursory reviews have all mentioned deaths and dirges but it's never quite that simple with Patti. She feels deeply, and she shares deeply. Many of the songs do reference loss and love. (Isn't it about time that Maria Schneider got a proper send off?)
Hearing Patti's voice again with new songs transports me back to Max's Kansas City 1974. She'd added a piano player. (Now, that was a good thing, 'cause Patti couldn't sing and Lenny couldn't play, but Richard Sohl COULD. He had an ability to follow her and Lenny and fill in around them as they improvised transporting word scorcery into songs.) I had a little reel-to-reel tape recorder and recorded those sets at Max's. Cassettes hadn't been invented yet. I played those reel-to-reel tapes every morning when I got up until "Horses" came out. My sister, who shared our bedroom, said I ruined her life with it. I wish I still had them. What history! Starting at the beginning, even the Bible starts there, Patti signaled that she was always going to be a work in progress. Many of those classic songs on "Horses" once had completely different lyrics - like "Birdland" which began with part of one of her poems "Bar stools were made for woman like this." I noted: "Keep an eye on this girl."
I sold all my college textbooks. I went to Max's every night she and Television (the opening act with Richard Hell still in the band) for the full week's tenure. There were so few people there, less than I could count on all my fingers and toes, that Max's would let us stay for the late show without paying the cover fee, as long as we ordered the two drink minimum. During "Land" Patti reached down and took a swig of my Heinekin. (If only she knew how much that cost me.)
My relationship with Patti and the band has withstood every way station and change. I saw the band come together bit by bit - first with Jay Dee Dougherty added on the drums. Then Ivan Kral. Nothing will ever come close to "Horses" but then again, nothing should. The genie came out of the bottle. There was no going back. Any other artist might have been intimidated by such a brilliant debut. Rock history is littered with great first albums never to be repeated. From day one, Patti exuded brazen confidence. She simply creates - in any medium.
Another motif running through "Banga" is adventure, explorers, going across oceans, boundaries, time and the planets themselves. I was at the Academy of Music when she announced she wasn't going to tour again "until Ivan Kral gets his citizenship." I thought it was just a plug for the song on "Wave" but she disappeared to marry, raise children, live a life. "Banga" is Patti: a wife, a mother, a friend, now Medicare-eligible. In the course of living, creating, evolving, she is timeless and relevant.
"Banga" may be my favorite song on the album. I love the dog howls. I love dogs. My sister just rescued a labrabull from a shelter. Loyalty and love are themes in Patti's work. They are what define us as humans, who are, after all, like dogs, pack animals. Patti stuck with Lenny after every long-forgotten local punk rock band in NYC passed on him as a guitarist. Lenny has turned into quite the musical collaborator, hasn't he? Each of these songs developed almost telepathically - music written separately, independently, yet somehow the perfect foils for Patti's lyrics.
"Banga" is Patti at her best - great poetry. Evocative music. Personal lyrics. She's an artist to her very core. There's been a 30 year progression of incorporating Middle Eastern music into 3-chord rock and roll. There's an immersion of non-traditional rock instruments. "Mosaic" is hallucinatory. "Constantine's Dream" is ten-minute journey. Reviews that reference Patti's with punk music may actually miss the whole point. She, and the band, were never punk rock. They once said, "we are the last of the hippies." And they are.
You'd have to go waaaaayyy back to find anything that approaches "Banga" - Jim Morrison and the Doors, Arthur Lee and Love, Lou Reed and the Velvets, Grace Slick paraphrasing James Joyce in "rejoyce," the Girl Groups of the Shangrilas and Ronettes. Patti always had a bent towards great pop. "This is the Girl" raises the specter of "We Three," and "Kimberly." The spoken-word section is pure soul music. Back in the day Patti would sometimes do a winsome version of the old Motown hit "The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game." The same girl who covered "Partime Paradise" and danced to "The 81" with Lenny at Bleecker Bob's still lives.
A simple acoustic version of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush" slapped me awake from this audio dream. It's spartan, beautiful, and a fitting end with a children's chorus. Ending the deluxe version of the album is a bonus single "Just Kids." It's a song version paraphrasing her book of the same name. I noted: "keep an eye on this girl."
Funny thing. Kinda like "6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon." Patti and I both wrote reviews for Creem back in the day. Now, she's a Pulitzer Prize-winning Poet Laureate for America. I write reviews on Amazon. But neither of us ever stopped writing.
The opening track "Amerigo" is a great, half spoken-word piece about the wonders and excitement of new discovery; similar techniques are used to great effect on "Tarkovsy (the Second Stop is Jupiter)" as well. These songs (and the 10-minute "Constantine's Dream") fuses Smith's pop-sensibilities with her street-poet instincts. Other tracks on the album are a little more forward in convention, though that's not necessarily a bad thing. "This is the Girl" is a poignant and sweet remembrance of the troubled Amy Winehouse; "Nine" rolls through guitar riffs and percussive tribal-like rhythms. Smith's lyrics are just as good as ever, but some of the energy she had feels lost. The track "Banga" has all the right elements: nice guitar riffs, interesting lyrics, good melodies, but it lacks the energy that her earlier work showcased. This energy has been replaced by a warm, wise, soulful mood that pervades the album. BANGA ends with "After the Gold Rush," a great ballad that brings in her children to finish the song for her.
Long time fans of Patti Smith will love BANGA. For new listeners, this album is a good entrance to her catalog, but I would suggest starting with her seminal HORSES. Listeners of Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen will find a lot to like here. Outstanding tracks to sample: "Amerigo," "Banga," and "Constantine's Dream." These songs will give you a good idea what to expect from the album. BANGA is fantastic -- give it a listen whether or not you've listened to Smith before or not.
The deluxe edition of BANGA includes a hardback book that contains photos, lyrics, and liner notes. The liner notes provide a great commentary track for the album and is recommended for long-time fans.