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Thursday, July 1, 2004 01:35 am

Remain the same, or reinvent

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Patti Smith Trampin’ (Columbia)

Patti Smith
TrampinÕ
(Columbia)

Most artists survive by reinventing themselves. The media, always angling for the snappy lead, demand of their subjects new storylines, and the subjects (who, after all, have stuff to sell) usually acquiesce. But Patti Smith, like God and Edith Piaf, is eternal -- exactly the same as she was 29 years ago, when the hippie-punk androgyne forever altered the landscape of rock & roll with her debut, Horses. Her biography -- from Jehovah's Witness misfit to bookish factory worker to underground poetess to rock star to stay-at-home-mom to rock star reborn -- can't begin to explain this brilliant freak, the unlikely genius who turned her love of Rimbaud and the Ronettes into a quicksilver rush of chaos and bliss. Even at her most theatrical, Smith has always seemed terrifyingly real (that famous armpit hair on Easter !), awash with sweat and blood and viscera. How could she possibly evolve when she started out so fully herself?

Smith may not have changed much over the past few decades, but we have, and we need her more than ever. Trampin' is overtly political in an age when the overtly political seems hopelessly uncool. There's no Country Joe and the Fish supplying singable slogans for today's anti-war set: The mainstream cranks out its consumerist fantasies, and the underground stagnates in ironic non sequiturs. In this flattened context, Smith's outraged howls and lugubrious prophecies might seem like relics of a time when people actually cared what artists thought about current affairs. Still, Smith tramps ever onward, scolding Rumsfeld's shock-and-awe-mongers in the 12-minute skronkfest "Radio Baghdad," inciting revolution in the gutbucket-gospel anthem "Jubilee," and honoring her pacifist heroes in "Gandhi" and "Mother Rose." From aching elegies to free-jazz conflagrations, from rapturous rants to winsome waltzes, Trampin' covers territory that will seem familiar to Smith fans, but sometimes retreading a path is the bravest course. Keep on trampin', Ms. Sisyphus.

PJ Harvey
Uh Huh Her
(Island)

In some ways, PJ Harvey is Patti Smith's heir, in others her opposite. At the peak of her fame, Smith was Jagger-lean and hieratic, defiantly androgynous; Harvey, a striking woman with appealingly oversized features, has been known to paint her mouth into a fearsome crimson rictus. Made up as a slatternly housewife, a lunatic whore, or a grunge Medusa, she has her sexy-frontwoman cake and eats it, too, with a palate-cleansing side of late-20th-century feminism. Also unlike Smith, Harvey reinvents herself semiregularly, or at least tarts up the surfaces a bit so the crit-geeks have something to talk about. From the chilly chamber-goth of her collaborations with John Parish to the high-strung art-metal of her work with the Desert Sessions, from the corrosive grunge of Rid of Me to the sleek menace of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, Harvey has always given excellent ink. But behind the style shifts and the nervy personas, it's still good old Polly Jean, the quarryman's daughter from rural England.

Like Smith, Harvey has one great theme -- her fascinating, singular self -- and it's a theme so magnificent, brutal, and rife with contradictions that she never seems to repeat herself. Culling the choicest bits from her catalog and combining them into something familiarly strange, Uh Huh Her is a synthesis of the styles Harvey has accumulated over her 12-year career: bleak and reverberant blues, deconstructed cabaret, glammed-up grunge, spooky folk, tricked-out punk. She produced the disc and played most of the instruments, but it's her voice -- deadpan one second, histrionic the next -- that's the real draw. Whether she's mouthing pretty threats or poisonous lullabies, she's an evolution unto herself.

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