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Revisiting a sophomore ‘slump’

written by: on June 15, 2011

It can get dicey for a musician who becomes a big name straightaway.

With the release of her 1976 LP Radio Ethiopia, punk progenitor Patti Smith rode the critical goodwill engendered by Horses, her now-legendary debut, into what many considered a sophomore slump. The album’s detractors perceived Smith’s efforts here as an unwelcome distortion of the promise she and her band displayed on Horses. To them, Smith’s magnetic vocals—all the speak-sung phrasing, spoken word passages and guttural exclamations—didn’t gel with her band’s bold sonic explorations on this outing.

The album’s gapless closing tracks, “Radio Ethiopia/Abyssinia,” gained some notoriety for having a combined length of more than 12 minutes, all of which featured Smith’s rambling poetry set against the band’s freeform scuzz. Surely this noise couldn’t be the next step in a career that had already yielded stunners like “Gloria,” “Birdland” and “Land.” But, really, why the hell couldn’t it be?

Radio Ethiopia may not be shrouded in pop-cultural iconoclasm like Horses or Smith’s third album, Easter (which was her most accessible release yet and included “Because the Night,” her only charting hit). It feels anything but lazy or rushed, which isn’t something that can be said for many so-called “sophomore slumps” today. Smith has never exaggerated her talents as a musician. By her own admission, she saw herself as more of a rock star in a performance sense, as opposed to someone with a fine-tuned ear for theory.

She readily credits much of the musical direction on her early albums to longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye and his band mates. (While Horses was presented as a solo project, Radio Ethiopia was advertised as a combined effort by the Patti Smith Group.)

But regardless of songwriting credits, what no one wants to hear is a self-professed rebel sounding tired, and despite the album’s alleged lack of direction, Smith sounds just as charged-up throughout Radio Ethiopia as she does during the best moments of her debut. Even on the previously mentioned title track—a bloody valentine to Arthur Rimbaud, one of Smith’s poetic heroes—her words sound exceptionally potent, though it’ll take more than a few listens to work out the lyrics, which she delivers in pained snarls and moans. This urgency carries “Pissing in a River,” a mournful, slow-burning address to an ex-lover. Smith and her band turn in an eviscerating performance. Not only is it one of the best songs on Radio Ethiopia, it’s one of the highlights of Smith’s entire discography.

Like “Pissing in a River,” “Strange” rolls steady while stirring up impressive atmospherics, and on “Poppies,” a spoken word piece that examines liberation via narcotics, Smith’s ragged voice sounds chillingly naked. This bare earnestness has an adverse effect on some of the other tracks. “Pumping” shoots for anthemic heights but never warrants the fist pumping Smith advocates. Album opener “Ask the Angels” is only somewhat more successful. “Distant Fingers” echoes the laidback sway of “Redondo Beach” off Horses, but the former’s lines about interplanetary amorousness come across as awkward and grating.

Which brings us back to “Radio Ethiopia/Abyssinia,” that perky juggernaut. Indeed, this pairing tries the listener’s patience more than any other song on the album, but nevertheless it’s appropriate as a capstone to the preceding tracks. It’s easy to imagine Smith atop a tank, shouting into a megaphone: “Listen up! Are you with me so far? Then chew on this!”

In fact, if “Radio Ethiopia/Abyssinia” was recorded today it might be released as a single and rack up some explosive blog buzz.

It’s strange that Radio Ethiopia still doesn’t net as many listeners as Horses and Easter. What was interpreted as self-indulgent, purposefully baffling noise upon its initial release would probably receive a far more enthusiastic reception in today’s music climate, where genres constantly shift into new and often stupefying forms. A wider reassessment of Radio Ethiopia’s merits might earn it a spot alongside Horses and Easter, cementing the trio of albums as one of the most impressive in rock music’s history.