Patti Smith – Outside Society (album review)

Patti Smith – Outside Society (Arista / Columbia / Legacy) CD review

Patti Smith’s impact on music is undeniable.  Just about every female rocker – from Chrissie Hynde to Courtney Love, has borrowed something from her.  And, her tough persona and emotional poetry put her in a class by herself.  But, because her music is largely ignored by radio, she ends up being someone you read about bur rarely actually hear.  This can make it difficult to figure out where to begin to explore her music.  Enter Outside Society – the first-ever single disc retrospective –  spanning her entire career.

The set starts with her version of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” from her debut album Horses – it’s not really a cover.  She completely guts the song – leaving only the familiar chord progression and chorus.  The track begins with a simple piano line and builds slowly, finally climaxing in a frenetic end, only hinted at in the original version.  “Free Money,” also from her debut, has a mellow beginning which transforms into a garage-rock rave-up, borrowing the rhythm from Love’s “Seven and Seven Is.”  The next couple of tracks come from her second album, Radio Ethiopia, which was produced by Jack Douglas, who was fresh off success with Aerosmith.  The two tracks from that session, “Ain’t It Strange” and “Pissing In a River” are meatier, with a heavier emphasis on guitar and Smith’s vocals sounding more assured.  A teaming with Bruce Springsteen gave Smith a surprise Top 20 hit in the summer of 1978 with “Because the Night.”  The melody is immediately recognizable as the Boss’, but the rest of the track, including the primal lyrics are pure Patti.

Her next album, Wave (produced by Todd Rundgren), has some of the most accessible Smith music to date.  The rough edges have been smoothed out, and there’s even some synth flourishes thrown in for good measure.  The attitude is unwavering, but I’m not sure you could call “Dancing Barefoot” or “Fredrick” punk.  Smith would then take a long break to raise a family, returning briefly for 1988’s Dream of Life.  It wasn’t until 1996’s Gone Again that she would begin recording music again on a regular basis.  Especially good is “Glitter In Their Eyes,” featuring one of the best guitar riffs of her “comeback.”  The newest track is a reinterpretation of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – the dirge-like tempo puts the eerie lyrics in the forefront, yet the banjo accompaniment adds a level of density – are we to take this seriously?  Her spoken-word coda gives the already bleak tune yet another shade of darkness.

Outside Society is not meant to sum up her career, like other “best of’s.”  And, certain diehards will quibble over the omission of their favorite track (for one, where’s her debut single “Piss Factory”?).  Instead, consider this a starting point for further exploration.  As an added bonus, Smith gives insight on each song in the liner notes.  –Tony Peters