Radio Ethiopia, by Patti Smith
I am a few years behind in Patti Smith’s literary catalog, but at the end of last year I read M Train and thought that it would be a good idea to listen to one of her albums and write about it. Somehow, I managed to go into this album having only heard “Ain’t it Strange,” less than a handful of times. I also would be remiss if I did not mention the huge influence Patti Smith has had, not only on my own artistic output, but also on the artistic output of scores of musicians, writers, and filmmakers that I look up to.
There is a lot to enjoy about this record that has a little bit of something for everyone. At times, it is intense, intimate, and poetic, at other times, it is hard and catchy, and then there are moments when it is experimental. What shines most is Patti Smith’s vocals, which range from howls and screams, to warm low notes, to enticing monologues that seem on the verge of character acting. Put together, it makes for an experience that forty years later still feels unparalleled. Smith’s merits should not downplay what her band brings to the album though. They keep up with her expressive vocals creating raw textures for her art to unfold against while still managing to produce some catchy riffs alongs the way, like the opening of “Ask the Angels.”
For me though, this record seems to exist in two places that are at times odds with one another. Some tracks like “Ask the Angels” and “Pumping” feel like conventional rock songs that you might expect to hear on a classic rock station today. Other tracks on this album like “Radio Ethiopia” and “Abyssinia” pulled too far into experimentation and went on a little too long for my taste. Between these two worlds, songs like “Ain’t it Strange,” “Distant Fingers,” and “Pissing in a River” strike up the right balance. Still, this record feels as if the band is still trying to find the correct formula between listenability and experimentation.
While I might not recommend this record to a first time listener of Patti Smith, I do think that there is still a lot here for fans to enjoy. Smith and her band push the boundaries of what rock music can do and muddle the line between music, noise, poetry, and expression. No matter the setting, it seems that Smith will always exude an intimate passion in her performances to draw listeners in.
Like cheese and wine, art can be best when consumed together. Why not try Patti Smith’s Instagram with this post.