Music Reviews

Patti Smith Twelve

(Sony) Buy it from Insound Rating - 9/10

If you're like me you're very dubious of covers in general. Most of us have grown up loving music in a period where the primary emphasis has been placed on the songwriter, at least in rock and indie circles. There's a good reason for this, since magnetic and compelling performers don't come around that often, or if they do, they gravitate to pop which provides a more lucrative outlet for their skills. It's easier for most of us to admire a superior craftsman like James Mercer of the Shins for his tunesmith chops, than to complain about his stiff onstage presence. It would serve us well to remember that the bands that have stood the test of time, from Elvis to the Beatles, Stones, Who and Zep, are the ones you simply could not take your eyes and ears off of. And don't forget, Elvis' Sun Sessions, the recordings that formed the blueprint for all rock song and swagger, were simply a collection of eclectic covers.

Patti Smith is, first and foremost, a magnetic and compelling performer. Whatever her talents as a poet or lyricist, she absolutely demands our attention on the stage or on her best recordings. So while some may have been surprised by her decision to release an album of cover tunes with her old band after establishing her, we might as well call it legend, on idiosyncratic personal material, we might recall that some of her greatest recordings, (Gloria, My Generation, Because the Night, etc) were written by others. She kicked the shit out of those songs, making them not only justifiable, but essential. So I think we should stand up and take notice when she handpicks a bunch of old songs and puts her own brand of nervy defiance on them - which is what she has done here. It would have been one thing if this was some kind of stopgap commercial endeavor where the old rock warhorse quickly runs through a set of classics to gear up for a spring booking on the Vegas strip. But seriously, this is Patti Smith we are talking about. Even if she gave a flying fig what the mainstream thought of her, which she clearly doesn't, she wouldn't have been able to sustain the smarminess necessary for the project for the length of an afternoon.

Not everything dazzles, but it's truly shocking what does. Who could have imagined it would be possible to cover Hendrix's "Are You Experienced" and do it any kind of justice? The original, with its backward guitars and drums, rests near the pinnacle of studio recording in rock music. Ditto for Gimme Shelter. Yet both these songs are highlights, particularly the latter, in which Patti invests the performance with all the passion she has left. It's not about bringing something new to these songs, because that's a dubious proposition, but more about getting inside and behind them and doing them justice. Can't you just hear the band having a great time making an unholy racket on White Rabbit? I bet they felt like teenagers again. Her last swipe at an iconic song is a folk rendition of Smells Like Teen Spirit, whose fairly ridiculous lyrics shouldn't stand up outside of the context of Nirvana's blistering attack. Yet somehow, the rhyming refrain (mosquito, libido) somehow makes sense coming out of her mouth, and as if to emphasize the point, she adds a few of her own apocalyptic lines in a brief spoken passage. This worldview, which I readily grant her, also explains her fondness for Dylan's "Changing of the Guards", played straight and simple. It even infuses meaning into "Everybody Wants to Change the World" and adds new layers to "Pastime Paradise". Ever since 9/11 and the Bush disaster, our squabbles and grievances have taken on epic, biblical proportions and this anxiety permeates the record, elevating what could have been a ritual exercise into a successful artistic statement.

You get the picture? Dispense with your scepticism about covering classic songs and get this album. Let Patti kick you ass, or at least make it squirm a little in your seat.