Patti Smith, Banga. When you're entering the land of a thousand dances with Patti Smith, it's pretty much in for a penny, in for a pound. There is no way to separate any of the many things she does, whether it's music, books, video, spoken word or just being. The woman has a presence that exists in a time of its own, and has since her very first tentative forays onto the stage. It's clear she's meant to be there, and 40 years later she owns whatever space she inhabits.
Banga is an album that had to exist, because it allows Patti Smith to throw open the closet doors and bring out every conceivable expression living inside there. Some of the music was first conceived on an overseas boat journey, and it shows. There is an expansiveness of feeling very few other singer-songwriters are able to achieve, and for those who signed up early for this ride it's a sheer joy just how exciting it still is. Smith's songs like "Amerigo" and "April Fool" are dead-on killers of what Smith's wonder really is. It's like a rainbow grows within and through some of sort of alchemical chicanery she has learned how to share it with us. No one does that better.
After reading Smith's recent book Just Kids, so much of her early life seems like an inevitable walk on the wild side, but one that always had purpose, which was to share visions. Not many other rock musicians have carved out as wide a berth, or stayed as true to their early instincts. So it's no surprise that Patti Smith's new album ends with the Neil Young song "After the Gold Rush." They share a sensibility of remaining true to themselves, come hell or high water, and don't back down. Whether it's in a burned-out basement or receiving the National Book Award, this woman is always home, right where the heart is.
Amadou & Mariam, Folila. Talk about the deep end — this self-described Blind Couple from Mali jump into the fire with collaborators Santigold, TV on the Radio, Nick Zinner, Theophilus London, Bassekou Kouyate, and others on Folila, and sound like they've found the mountaintop. The songs were initially recorded in New York, and with producer Marc-Antoine Moreau Amadou and Mariam re-recorded them with more traditional instrumentation in Bamako. The way they've been mixed together is somewhat surreal but always completely captivating. This is music for the future played by those with strong roots in the past, but who remain unafraid to go wherever experimentation takes them.
The most obvious surprise on all these songs is how seamless the new and the old join together. So much of African music is highly rhythmic, and the patterns played sound like they could come from any generation. Amadou's inventive guitar is able to weave through all the various additions to their songs and is the constant musical factor holding the parts together. On paper, these collaborations might have looked too complex to work, but in the studio a special kind of magic took over and allowed the Africans to go in a dozen different directions. Luckily, all of them sound natural together.
These songs are all reminders of the endless variations possible in world music. Thirty years ago, when African artists like King Sunny Ade and Fela Kuti were first reaching an audience in America, it felt like a brand new day lay ahead and there might come a time when musical boundaries would become more fluid and audiences could find an eclectic future few could scarcely guess then. Thankfully, that happened and while trends come and go and success remains an elusive mistress, those like Amadou & Mariam never look back. The word "folila" means music in Bambara, and this pair wouldn't have it any other way.
Albert King, I'll Play the Blues For You. The beautiful part of how the three Kings—B.B., Freddy, and Albert—came to display the best of urban blues guitar is that each was so different. They had different styles and attacks, and fortunately never overlapped. For many, Albert King zeroed in on the low-down rattle-your-bones sound on his Flying V guitar. There were no wasted notes, and each one he played felt like it was being telegraphed directly to the deepest part of the soul. When King was on and bearing down on his blues, it was like he was taking a sledgehammer to the heart. And when he got the job done with a trembling lead run, King would often throw his head back and start shouting. That's when his audience knew he'd put it all the way in the alley.
I'll Play the Blues For You was first released in 1972, and captures Albert King after he'd worked his way out of the chitlin' circuit and found a new spot on rock and roll bills. The best news, though, is how this didn't really change him at all. He still strangled the Gibson guitar neck when he really hit the note, and could make a crowd gasp in response. While these songs might have moved slightly uptown, with backing by the Bar-Kays and the Movement along with the Memphis Horns, it was still strictly business for the big man. Even though his vocals were a little smoother, maybe, King always knew what he did best — he played the blues.
The gorgeous power of Albert King lives fully in this reissue, and that is very good news for blues lovers everywhere. To hear him working those dark corners of the human spirit shows how no matter how many players have come after, there really isn't anyone who can take an audience all the way down and still make them feel like tomorrow might be a better day. Everyone from Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons, Stevie Ray Vaughan, right up to Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Gary Clark Jr. went to school at the University of Albert King, and there hasn't been a better institution of higher—or lower—learning since. Have mercy.