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Patti Smith & Kevin Shields - The Coral Sea

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Artist: Patti Smith & Kevin Shields

Album: The Coral Sea

Label: Pask

Review date: Aug. 4, 2008


Patti Smith & Kevin Shields - "The Pedestal" (The Coral Sea)


Despite being crowned the godmother of punk, Patti Smith’s music can be frustratingly conservative. In particular, her guitarists tend to get faded into the background whenever they depart from rock boilerplate. So this pairing is wish fulfillment of sorts, because whatever else you want to say about My Bloody Valentine, they sure redeemed the possibilities of the electric guitar at a point when it seemed like the instrument had hit a wall, and Kevin Shields is the architect of MBV’s advances.

The Coral Sea is a volume of visionary prose Smith wrote in memory of her late friend Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989. Despite its brevity – just 71 pages – this book looms large in Smith’s body of work, because Mapplethorpe meant so much to her. They had egged each other on when they were both broke bohemians trying to become artists in the early ’70s, and Mapplethorpe’s striking cover portraits established Smith as an icon for people who never played her records. Rather than tell his story straight, Smith imagined a man on a mythic journey to see the Southern Cross before he died, and poured her grief and longing into it. She had tried to read it publicly, but never got through it.

Enter Shields, whose enveloping guitar sound is as close to oceanic as six strings get. Shields and Smith played the piece twice in London, on June 22, 2005, and September 12, 2006. This double CD includes both performances.

The first sounds much more planned out. Shields adopts different voices. Initially, his guitar resembles a church organ; on “Rank And File,” he twists feedback in long cutting strands around Smith’s body imagery. Then he raises orchestral swells on “A Bed Of Roses.” Smith takes her time and tests her delivery, speaking calmly, whispering, breaking briefly into song, and only ascending to an impassioned pitch near the moment of death.

The second staging is nearly 10 minutes shorter and feels much denser. Shields tosses out the map he followed the first time out. There’s much less contrast in his playing, which tends toward minute variations on his trademarked big blur. Smith adopts a voice that is at once stern and compassionate. Her intensity builds more quickly, and she punctuates the text by repeating phrases so insistent that she might just as well grab you by the coat and smack you. The final rush commingles anguish and ecstasy quite powerfully, glorying in the significance Mapplethorpe held for Smith and resonating for anyone who has lost someone and is willing to be taken to the water.

And that’s the catch. You can’t listen to this record passively, you have to buy into it without reservation. Far from the wished-for opening up of Smith’s music, this record is for the already converted. But maybe that’s as it should be. Who would want to share their best friend’s wake with a bunch of strangers?

By Bill Meyer

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