Patti Smith isn’t ready to bury the memory of her former friend and lover Robert Mapplethorpe. Not at all. The Coral Sea was originally a book that paid tribute to the late photographer, and it was written by Smith just seven years after Mapplethorpe’s death. The book subsequently became the inspiration for this project, between Smith and My Bloody Valentine singer/guitarist Kevin Shields.
They’re an odd match, Smith and Shields. Both come from two distinctly different strains of underground rock. Both cast a long influence over their contemporaries. Only a fool would attempt to imitate either artist. The shoegazers never really had much in common with My Bloody Valentine, just as the punks never had many artistic ties to Smith, despite the artists' close association with each of those groups, respectively.
Yet it’s difficult to imagine a conversation between the two. How was The Coral Sea conceived? For much of these recordings, which were captured over two nights at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on June 22, 2005, and September 12, 2006, the two artists seem to be fervently mining their own territory. But the combination works surprisingly well. The (presumed) lack of rehearsal frees both Smith and Shields from the shackles of conventional song structure and allows them to vent their feelings through their chosen modes of expression. In Smith’s case, it’s with some thoughtful, violent poetry; for Shields, it’s through the kind of heavily treated guitar that made his name.
Shields’ playing is mostly ambient, but he occasionally (and thrillingly) hammers on the tremolo arm and breaks out a big slab of warped guitar that sounds like a drumless, vocalless outtake from Isn’t Anything. Smith’s poetry is vehement, intense, boiling over with rage. Oblique imagery is spat from her mouth and delivered with forceful intent. It’s easy to imagine her on her knees, howling these words into the vast open spaces of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, surrounded by awed fans who remain deathly silent throughout.
This is undoubtedly the most impressive project either artist has been involved with for a number of years. The Coral Sea isn’t an easy listen, and nor should it be. These are two artists who strive to push and pull at the expectations of their audiences. It shouldn’t be any surprise that their combined talents have produced this difficult, unwieldy album full of tracks more than 10 minutes long.
It’s not a record that people will return to often, especially as the full impact is really only derived from devouring the whole album in a single sitting. So, how was The Coral Sea conceived? It seems Smith and Shields simply both did what they are best at, and in the process uncovered some common ground that few thought existed. Fortunately, the results are riveting.
Musical legends from across generations, Patti Smith and Kevin Shields, collaborated together in 2005 and 2006 to stage a multimedia concert event that went by the name The Coral Sea. That name is shared with the title of a book by Smith that, like the performances, paid tribute to her good friend, the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith and My Bloody Valentine mastermind Shields put on two perfomances of The Coral Sea at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall. This album features recordings of those performances. Smith recites spoken word pieces while Shields accompanies with guitar lines and sound effects behind her.
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