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Monday, Aug. 22, 2011

Patti Smith

Outside Society (Columbia Arista Legacy)

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Patti Smith was a bolt out of left field with her 1975 album Horses. It might be hard 35 years on to understand how deeply that music affected scattered outcasts across America in the moment before the dawn of punk rock. The unsettling fury of her voice, the primal power of her band and her strange poetry opened up a quantum world of danger and possibility. Horses was not the average debut by an unknown artist in 1975; building on the legacy of the Velvet Underground, Horses pointed the way toward the future.

Outside Society
tries to cover Smith's major-label recording career within the length of a single CD and succeeds as a compact introduction to her long and varied catalog. After her drop-jaw reinvention of Van Morrison's “Gloria” (Horses) through the sludgy reggae impression “Ain't It Strange” (Radio Ethiopia), Smith startled everyone with one of the great pop rock hits of the '70s, the Springsteen-collaboration “Because the Night” (Easter). “Dancing Barefoot” (Wave) was a river of Eros banked by rock balladry and “Frederick” (Wave) was one of the loveliest songs of married bliss ever. And then Smith stopped for nearly a decade.

One could be forgiven for dismissing her after the bland inspirational sentiment of her comeback recording, “People Have the Power” (Dream of Life
), but her '90s work was better. Her older, wiser, hootenany cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Twelve) travels full circle to “Gloria” as a radically poetic reinvention of a familiar rock song. Alas (or perhaps just as well?), no previously unreleased bonus tracks appear, but Smith provides brief, interesting commentaries on each track.