THESE TWO albums are about as dissimilar, musically, as any products of today's mass-marketed record companies can be. Lou Reed's record is curious fusion of jazz instruments, electronic effects, and Reed's fast-decaying voice; Patti Smith's latest is a luke-warm porridge of mushy mixing and tame playing. Yet we have New York Times critic John Rockwell '62 hailing both artists as "principal figures in New York's vanguard rock underground," and liberally praising their records. Arista Records chose to release both new albums at the same time, helping link the two in the public mind. But then, to the rest of the country all musicians that emerge from New York sound the same, right?
In one respect, at least, both Lou Reed and Patti Smith represent a single tradition in popular music-that of the talking singer. Both like to patter over a light drum beat or bass line, in the manner of a Jim Morrison. For Smith this practice masquerades as high poetic art; for Reed it seems to be more a product of his declining vocal resources. His last album, Take No Prisoners-a live, double-record set-consisted mostly of Reed chattering with and occasionally insulting his audiences.
The rock monologue can be a worthwhile approach, if the singer has something interesting to say and musical values don't completely dry up. They do, however, at least once on Smith's new album-the title track, "Wave." In a gesture as pretentious as it is self-defeating, she abandons music entirely and presents what Rockwell calls "great acting." That certainly isn't what people pay for when they buy a record from someone who poses as a "rock and roll star"-someone who even sings a cover of the old Bryds track "So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star" on Wave. She tries to elevate rock stardom to high art, and then drops rock music itself as though it were a mere superfluity.
On the rest of Wave, Smith has dropped the rock and roll as well, in spirit if not literally. By calling in California drug commando Todd Rundgren to produce music, she must have known what she would get-thick, homogenized sound with all the bite smoothed out. Wave, Smith has dropped the rock and roll as well, in spirit if not literally. By calling in California drug commando Todd Rundgren to produce music, she must have know what she would get-thick, homogenized sound with all the bite smoothed out. Wave is Smith's wimpiest yet. In a steady decline from the brilliant drive of Horses through the undisciplined but energetic cacophony of Radio Ethiopia, to the smooth commercial success of Easter last year, Patti Smith has shucked off the "Queen Bitch" persona and put on the airs of a little girl.
THERE'S STILL some good music on Wave-"Frederick," an ode to Rimbaud set to a tune suspiciously like Smith's only hit, "Because The Night;" "Dancing Barefoot," in which she sings with more precision than she has yet managed; and "Broken Flag," a sweeping anthem to her curious idea of America. But even these tracks partake of the torpor that fills the rest of the record. During her last tour, Smith padded sheepishly around the stage and did her best to play cute. The music on Wave acts identically, and neither escapes with a shred of credibility.
Bereft of his old band the Velvet Underground, his "rock and roll animal" stage mask, and now even his voice, credibility is about all Lou Reed can lay claim to today. His recent studio albums have each shed a successive layer of his personality-on Coney Island Baby, he sang "I want to play football for the coach"; on Street Hasslehe sang "I want to be black"; on The Bells, nothing is left but his ashen, wasted face.
The music of The Bells reflects the desolation of that face. Somewhere along the line, Reed seems to have decided that the minimal rock he pioneered with the velvet Underground in the late '60s-basic riffs repeated without elaboration on a rhythm guitar-was bankrupt as a musical form. He broadcast this decision with his rendition of the old Velvet Underground standard "We're Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together" on Street Hassle; he sang it virtually a cappella, with no guitar, no drums, nothing but a fuzzy electronic backup to signal that this was indeed, or had been, rock and roll.
Reed's replacement for the Velvet Underground sound is a mixture of electronically synthesized guitar and bass, a traditional wind and brass section, and a technique called "stereo binaural sound"-which has something to do with the placement of microphones and leads to a thick, atmospheric recording best listened to with headphones. The sound is unmistakeable and very pleasing, and so far Reed has been able to write songs that take full advantage fo it. On "I Want to Boogie With You," Don Cherry's trumpet and Marty Fogel's sax thicken the soup of a repeated chord sequence in the bass and guitar; indeed, throughout The Bells these traditional jazz instruments are worked into Reed's rock songwriting better than most so-called fusion bands ever manage. Reed advertises his new orientation on the album sleeve, prominently displaying his statement. "If you can't play rock and you can't play jazz, you put the two together and you've really got something." Unfortunately, Reed's voice has deteriorated from the days when he could belt out "Sweet Jane." While he doesn't sound as bad on The Bells as he did on Take No Prisoners, he persists in using a whiny, nasal voice on many songs, very different from his old black throated style and not flattering. This voice doesn't destroy the interest of the instrumentation on The Bells, but it does make repeated listening hard to bear.
REED'S CONFESSIONAL instinct shows up conspicuously in a song called "Families," in which he chants rejection of his family's suburban expectations. In "With You," he sings
Don't you think you could be less capricious
Unlike you I don't have no deathwish
It's hard to tell whether he's addressing some femme fatale or just himself, a decade ago. Like Smith, Reed apparently prefers talking to singing; but he has worked out a way to do so and still turn out something that can be called a song. On "All Through the Night," he both sings the words of the song to one of his repetitive tunes, and jabbers away in the background through the noise of a barroom conversations. With the sonic breadth of the binaural technique, the track captures what you would like to think it would be like to see Reed live at a small club.
Lou Reed and Patti Smith both began as hard rockers, and both have turned away from the good, fast beat and loud guitar staples of that genre. Smith has ditched them for mellow production and a cute smile, letting pretense win out over her instinct to play the music hard. Reed, more respectably, has done as much with them as he can and them tried to break away gently. Neither can tightly be called a leader of the avant garde. Reed is tired out, and though his work may point the way for others, his days of leadership are over. Smith has forfeited her leadership in a vain attempt to pretty her music up for the mass market.
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