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  Patti Smith  
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I have this friend who is impossible to shop for. You know the type: frugal, self-reliant, and a tad bit finicky. He tends to throw out anything he doesn’t use, wear, read, or eat on a regular basis, and his decorating style can be unpredictable. Every year, I struggle to find the perfect birthday present -- not too extravagant, not too big, not too boring, not too sentimental, and certainly not a house-cluttering knicknack. Our musical tastes are similar, but CDs are always risky business. If he only likes one or two songs by an artist, he will deem it a waste to buy the entire album. You know the type.

But, this year, I knew months in advance what I’d get him for his birthday thanks to Patti Smith. See, my friend is a huge Smith fan (in fact, he helped turn me on to her), and he loves “Greatest Hits” compilations. Land is a retrospective anthology, but it includes more than just “Best of” songs. The “collection,” for lack of a better term, has two CDs -- fan favorites on disk one and Smith’s choices on disk two -- as well as a sort of mini-scrapbook of her professional life. Packaged in a simple black and white fold-out cardboard cover smaller than most double-CD albums, Land’s presentation is both moving and unostentatious. Photos line the box and fill the mini-scrapbook: old and new shots of Smith and friends, vintage concert flyers, manuscript pages, and more. Most poignant is a short reflection by Smith at the end of the insert, beginning with the horrors of The World Trade Center Bombing and ending with quiet gratitude for her fans.

Musically, the collection varies; it is a journey that includes the prerequisite standards, rare demo tracks, recent live recordings, and even quirky unexpected covers. Disk one will be of less interest to Smith collectors because it is a predictable re-release of 17 tracks most requested by fans, moving from raw classics like Dancing Barefoot and Rock N Roll Nigger to her later, more melodic works like Glitter In Their Eyes. The songs show Smith’s magnificent career and punctuate the relevance of all her work, even 25 years later. It is a CD that can be played over and over again without growing stale. But it offers few surprises. Perhaps the most interesting track is a cover of When Doves Cry that ends the disk, but after the rich musical journey of the previous songs, this cover somehow seems hollow and even unnecessary.

Disk two serves up better goodies for collectors, with 13 previously unreleased recordings including demos of Piss Factory, Redondo Beach, and Distant Fingers. All of the live tracks were recorded in the past few years, except 25th Floor (a powerful performance in Eugene, OR, 1978). But, these songs also span Smith’s career: older pieces like Birdland and newer tracks like Dead City and Boy Cried Wolf, which features Smith’s recitation of William Blake’s Little Lamb. Another surprise cover lurks at the end of the final track, Notes to the Future when Smith sings The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow and dedicates it to her mother.

It is impossible to pass judgment on a body of work this enormous and intense, but I can say this: I would have liked one or two new originals. While the covers are whimsical and unexpected, Land offers no hint about Smith’s musical direction following the reflective Gung Ho and little solace in the aftermath of 9/11. In a time of political and spiritual uncertainty, I heed our leaders in Washington less and less and increasingly seek voices of artistic wisdom, comfort, and reflection like Smith. But, perhaps that’s too much to ask of one person -- just a singer/poet/artist with vision and passion. And for now at least, my friend and I are blessed with black and white memories that march powerfully over Land.

Related Links:

Gung Ho, Patti's most recent original album.


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