Patti Smith: Horses (Arista)
Since rock and roll began its current decline some years ago the well-paid mavens of rock fashion have cast about desperately for a socio-musical force to replace the once-potent gods and goddesses of pop in the 60's. Lou Reed, David Bowie, Blue Oyster Cult, Slade, lggy Pop, the New York Dolls, Bruce Springsteen and some others have been dragged forward to have the banner of rock and roll rebellion thrust into their eager but inadequate hands, and wealthy rock retreads the Rolling Stones, the Who, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Eric Clapton and others are forever being pumped up as persons still worthy of others' emulation.
Yet despite these writers' efforts a deathly pall continues to hang over the rock scene these days, a depressing darkness which is not pierced by the nostalgic fumblings and mumblings of this bunch of aging former teen-agers whose frame of reference has remained pitifully fixed for almost ten years. And now the Rock-Critic Establishment (discussed briefly in last issue's Coat Puller) has seized upon an ambitious young woman from New Jersey named Patti Smith as the New Messiah of Rock, hailing her first album (Horses, on Arista Records) as everything from a pop masterpiece to the crack of apocalypse itself.
Ms. Smith, who seems to see herself as something of a cross between Mick Jagger/Keith Richard and Bob Dylan, wades in the same narrow mythological stream which washes the brains of her former colleagues (the poet-singer has worked as a rock writer and publicist in earlier incarnations), but for one who does not look to rock and roll for salvation in the 70's - for one, that is, who is seeking simple musical satisfaction -Patti's first recorded offering leaves quite a bit to be desired.
Major talent is displayed on two extended pieces, the poet's brilliant reworking of the early 60's rock anthem "Gloria" and her phantasmagoric treatment of Wilson Pickett's "Land of a Thousand Dances," but her original works (composed in conjunction with the members of her exceptionally tight, hard-driving band), although they aim at the same poetic depth achieved by the two standards, simply do not measure up. "Rendondo Beach," "Birdland," "Free Money," "Kimberly," "Break It Up," and "Elegie" all fall short not only of the mark set by "Gloria" and "Land," but of the minimal standards of interest and musicality which obtain in the world of recorded music these days.
Horses is still a record well worth owning by lovers of hard-core rock and roll, even if one is unable to recommend Ms. Smith as the solution to all the woes of young people today. Her band, with Lenny Kaye (guitar), Richard Sohl (piano), Ivan Kral (bass), and Jay Dee Daugherty (drums), truly outdoes itself on the two instant classics here; producer John Cale brings out everything there is to be heard in Patti's music; and Patti herself lives up to her hype on the high points cited above. Intelligent listeners might want to check this one out.
Junior Walker & the All Stars: Hot Shot (Motown)
Next up is an intriguing new album from one of the giants of modern-day rhythm and blues, the inestimable Junior Walker. Hot Shot, Junior Walker & the All Stars, produced by Brian Holland and Lawrence T. Horn for Holland-Dozier-Holland Productions and Motown Records, brings back both the scorching saxophonist and the top production team of ten years ago in a scintillating collection of dancing and listening pleasures. Brian and Eddie Holland contribute seven serviceable numbers, including stand-outs 'I'm So Glad," "You Ain't No Ordinary Woman" (indeed!), "Just Can't Get Enough," and the hard-driving "Don't Lose What You Got (Trying To Get Back What You Had)," while Junior himself (revealed here as Autrey DeWalt, Senior) and his cooking road band, featuring Junior on drums, account for two of the album's most successful tunes, the moody "Probe Your Mind" and the unstoppable title tune, "Hot Shot." Junior is in great form both instrumentally and vocally, the Hollands reveal their determination to re-establish themselves in the center of things once again, and Motown should have a solid disco and radio smash on their hands with this one. By no means the best Junior Walker ever recorded, but it is what he's playing right now, and that's as much as we can get.
Big Mama Thornton: Jail (Vanguard)
Another relatively obscure(d) artist who has had an immeasurable impact on the white rock strain, and not only by virtue of her original recording of the classic "Hound Dog" later popularized by the early Elvis Presley, is blues singer Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, a veteran of the recording wars who is now offered in a live set recorded in two west coast prisons by Vanguard Records. Backed by George "Harmonica" Smith, tenor saxophonist Bill Potter, pianist J.D. Nichols, guitarists B. Huston and Steve Wachsman, and a fairly tight rhythm section, Big Mama T. romps and stomps her way through a first side of three tremendous tunes of her own composition: the hopping "Little Red Rooster"; the incomparable "Ball and Chain," once so beautifully rendered by Janis Joplin and Big Brother & the Holding Company in one of the high points of rock and roll in the 60's, and here dedicated to the late San Francisco singer; and the album's lowdown title number, "Jail," which draws a particularly telling response from Ms. Thornton's captive audience. (The record was cut at Monroe State Prison, Monroe, Washington, and Oregon State Reformatory, Eugene, Oregon.)
Jail, side two, opens with a delightfully up-to-date version of the canine standard, follows with a convincing "Rock Me Baby," drops down a few levels with the folkish "Sheriff O.E. and Me," and ends with the pop-gospel anthem, "Oh Happy Day," an appropriately hopeful chant of impending release which is whipped into a near-frenzy by saxophonist Potter, who plays splendidly throughout the date. Smith, Nichols, and the two guitarists also keep the musical level way up there with Willie Mae's confident, fully mature vocal delivery. The mix, by engineer John Kilgore, is superb, and the production, by "General Hog" Wyler, is everything a live date should be. An Outstanding blues release, not to be missed.
Burning Spear: Marcus Garvey (Island)
Further out on the R&B branch are the Jamaican singing trio Burning Spear (Winston Rodney, Rupert Willington, and Delroy Hines), a group of reggae masters who now have their first American release, Marcus Garvey, on Island Records. Supported by an excellent studio band comprised of bassists Aston (Family Man) Barrett and Robert (Rabbi) Shakespeare, guitarists Earl (Chinna) Smith and Valentine (Tony) Chin, drummer Leroy (Horse) Wallace, keyboardists Tyrone (Organ D) Downie and Bernard (Touter) Harvey, and a five-man horn section, Burning Spear knocks out a total of ten tantalizing, Trenchtown originals in the hot rasta pocket, including two tributes to the late Afro-American leader Marcus Garvey, a haunting "Slavery Days," "The Invasion," and "Tradition," and the celebratory "Live Good." Family Man's irrepressible bassism pushes the music mercilessly, and the lyrics (principally written by Winston Rodney, who also arranged the date) are exactly right on time throughout. One of the hippest reggae LPs your reporter has had the pleasure of hearing, and a sure bet for anyone who digs the Trenchtown sound.
Elvin Jones: Live (PM)
Finally, a word must be said in behalf of a live recording by the premier drummer in modern music, Pontiac's own Elvin Jones, which has recently been released on the artist-owned PM Records label. Recorded at New York's Town Hall September 12, 1971, at a John Coltrane Memorial Concert, by a group comprising Frank Foster and Joe Farrell. reeds; Chick Corea, piano; Gene Perla, bass; and the mighty Elvin on drums, ELVIN JONES LIVE presents side-long workouts on Foster's "Simone" and Keiko Jones' "Shinjitu," both of which cook like crazy throughout.
As you read this, Elvin Jones is appearing here in Detroit at Baker's Keyboard Lounge, where you have the opportunity to catch this modern master "live" for yourselves. But if you miss him, try to get your hands on the music from the John Coltrane Memorial Concert - it's the next best thing, and when you're talking about Elvin Jones, you're talking about the very best! (PM Records can be ordered directly from 20 Martha Street, Woodcliff Lake, N.J. 07675.)
-- John Sinclair