Patti Smith (Columbia)
Patti Smith's hyper-literate brand of music has evolved from wild-eyed punk deconstructionism to low-key poetic ruminations that are far more Leonard Cohen than they are the Sex Pistols.
Put another way: Gee, Patti Smith sure does sound like she's on the other side of middle-aged.
This is not a bad thing, of course. She is, after all, 66 years old and if she was still thrashing around the way she did at the epicenter of the late '70s punk movement it would be unseemly and weird. But the energy on this, her 11th studio release, is remarkably low key.
"Banga" features themes of discovery -- both of new lands and of self -- environmental consciousness and self-awareness as Smith grapples with the artist's role in her own life and that of the world around her. Kicking off with "Amerigo," named after the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, Smith rambles along for 12 songs, most of which are midtempo and ruminative.
"April Fool" is a wonderful middle-aged pop song, the title track features a cameo from Johnny Depp, and "This Is the Girl" -- an ode to Amy Winehouse -- is a sad waltz that would sound perfect in the hands of Cohen. But the centerpiece is the 10-minute long, trippy spoken word freak out "Constantine's Dream." It's impossible to describe exactly what's going on here without writing a doctoral thesis, but in her liner notes Smith writes that the apocalyptic tale was mostly improvised.
The song stands as a piece of performance art and surrealistic story-telling, a companion to Bob Dylan excursions such as "Desolation Row." Fittingly the next song is Neil Young's "After the Goldrush," a pensive, hopeful message that ends the disc on a quiet, upbeat note.
If you're not already a Patti Smith fan, "Banga" probably isn't the place to start. But if you wonder just how intellectual and poetic modern music can be and you're OK with taking the time to figure it all out, this is your reward.
-- ROD LOCKWOOD
Chris Brown (RCA)
One of the best songs on Chris Brown's new album is a soft number, "Don't Judge Me," that finds him asking a girlfriend to look past his mistakes.
"So please don't judge me, because it can get ugly, before it gets beautiful," he sings in his signature semi-high pitch.
For another singer, such a tune might come off as just another relationship plea. But coming from the bad boy singer whose career is nearly restored after his attack on Rihanna three years ago, it seems like a cry for understanding to the whole world and makes him sound vulnerable and appealing.
When Brown opens up, he's the best version of himself. Unfortunately, there aren't enough of those songs to make "Fortune," the 23-year-old's fifth album, a must have (it's the follow up to last year's Grammy-winning "F.A.M.E.").
The album veers from hip-hop flavored party jams to electronic, pulsating tracks meant for laser light shows to more emotional fare. The album suffers from Brown's cocky rap-talk and the computerized noises that drown out today's dance songs.
One of the highlights is "4 Years Old." Like "Don't Judge Me," it is soft and slow, with Brown recalling his childhood, singing: "Feels like I'm 4 years old all over again, because I'm just running fast, I should be walking, saying when I grow up you gon' see, I'm gon' be comfortable and happy."
But most of the other tracks are mediocre, and those that standout -- like "Biggest Fan" and "2012" -- suffer from the album's lack of flow and patchy feel.
-- MESFIN FEKADU, Associated Press
PAT METHENY (Nonesuch)
Thirty years have passed since guitarist Pat Metheny last recorded with the guitar/tenor setup of "80/ 81." Here the mighty tenor saxophonist Chris Potter assumes the role that Michael Brecker and Dewey Redman played on that earlier CD, and the "Unity" session ranges from beautiful to adventurous to sublime.
Metheny melts into his airy zone, achieving a free sound that is both accessible and hard to categorize. Potter is ever churning new ideas, while a new collaborator, bassist Ben Williams, joins with longtime Metheny drummer Antonio Sanchez to create the high-end rhythm section.
"New Year" is one of the most gorgeous Metheny intros ever, with its Spanish tinge. For "Signals," Metheny breaks out the orchestrion, the electronic gizmo that dominated his last recording, for a piece that segues from modernistic to smart and subtle. "Then and Now" is luxurious and happy, while Metheny's solo on "Come and See" makes for a persuasive climax.
--KARL STARK, Philadelphia Inquirer
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