The Patti Smith Group's fourth release, "Wave" (arista AB221), is an effort of very high quality: cohesive and appealing in considerations ranging from Smith's supple lyric imagery and her band's solid, much-improved musicianship to such details as Robert Mapplethorpe's delicate photography.
Smith herself commands this recording. Her compositions exhibit an imagery that's naive and vivid while consciously forging the persona of rock hero in the tradition of Lou Reed and, especially, the visionary aspect of Jim Morrision. She is a skillful if offbeat lyricist, and her work, somewhat surprisingly, displays a mature smoothness that one doesn't always find in the Father-Yes-Son-I-Want-to-Kill-You school of symbolist superflutity.
She's not afraid to thust herself into the foreground of the album, but doesn't often do so at the expense of musical performance. The band's playing is crisper and more accomplished than in previous recordings, coupled with Smith's quavering, histrionic vocals. The opening cut, "Frederick," demonstrates a direct, disciplined approach with its clear, thumpling beat and twinking keyboard runs. "Dancing Barfoot" is even better, faintly Doors-ish, mesmerizing the listener with Smith repetition. Her aggressive celebrations of women are refreshing. "She is the benediction," Smith begins, while in the chorus "Some strange music/draws me in makes me come on/like some heroine." She finishes, fiercely proud, "What is that calls to us. . . the promise that she/is blessed among women."
The performers expend all their energy for a driving, savage version of the Byrds' "So you Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star." Smith's theatrical personality works to an advantage here as she chants the verses. These three tracks are the most tightly organized of the hard-rock numbers; unfortunately, some other are a bit more diffuse.
"Rerevenge" opens with a riff strikinkly similar to the Beatles' "Because and affords Smith an opportunity for quiet humor ("You gave me a wristwatch baby/You didn't even give me the time of day/You want to know what makes me tick. . ."). Although the song is musically well crafted with skidding, clashing guitar work, its sustained wailing chorus snarls messily and weakens the group's effect. The same flaw applies to "Citizen Ship," the grimly biographical tale of Czechoslovak refugee/band member Ivan Kral. Smith throws herself into the recounting of his struggle for survival in the New World as she cites peaks on the recent revolutionary graph (prague, Watts, "Chicago). She alludes unabashedly to biblical heroism and martydom -- "Men in uniform/giving vinegar/spoon of misery" and descends into a vertiable vocal morass at the song's end.
"Seven Ways of Going," an occuit piece with Oriental touches, is an interesting diversion. Smith is again exploring images of women ("Dedicated to the rites of the heroine") but the track's overt sensuality centers on some rather predictable bondage/prisoner references. The ascending guitar work counterpoises and integrates well with the colliding bass and drums, however.
Former rock critic Lenny Kaye, the band's guitarist, seems to function as the group's lively (if invislable) mainstay. He collabarates with Patti Smith in the compsotion of two songs: the first, "Hymn," isn't likable. The second, however, is an impassioned anthem with authentically hymnlike writting and delivery -- Smith delights in romantic political metaphors. "Broken Flag" advances from a solemn piano introduction to truly stirring chrous ("For we're marching toward Angiers") and noble electric guitar solo to conclude religiously: "In the sky/a broken flag/children wave/and raise their arms/we'll be gone/but they'll go on. . .
"Wave" finishes with the titletrack monologue by Smith, apparently her end of an imaginary conversation on the beach with the late Pope John Paul I. Tapes of the ocean play in the backgroumd, accompained by random piano notes to emphasize the chilling eccentricity of her recitiation. Patti Smith is adept at creating specific moods; in this case it's vaccant sings, echoing, for a high-vaulted cathedral effect as she switches naturally (as on other cuts) from moder English to archaic usage and back again.
The best compositions on "Wave," though, are ones such as "Broken Flag," in which Smith restricts herself to more vonventional structured forms that home her intensity and concentrate ti even further.
The Patti Smith Group fuses ('60s. style) pure electric rock with its leader's confident mysticism and tempers her tendency toward unhealthiness and excess. Thes result is hardly an anachronism -- Patti Smith's originality makes "Wave" quite dynamic.