Patti Smith: Twelve

By: Dennis Cook

The problem with most cover tune collections is overplayed, obvious choices and lackluster performances. Sadly, Twelve (Columbia) is no exception to these pitfalls. Patti Smith is the great lady of ’70s rock, a visionary with a fragrant, earthy vibe. If anyone could enliven other’s compositions Smith seems a good candidate. That turns out to not be the case.

What one yearns for in a good cover is a performance that both reinvigorates our love of the original and lays some claim to the piece wholly one’s own. Good examples include The Gourd‘s take on Snoop’s “Gin And Juice” and The Grateful Dead doing Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.” Nothing here reaches this level.

Her stately version of Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” isn’t as interesting as Coolio’s reworking, and a somnambulant arrangement of The Doors’ “Soul Kitchen” and a straight reading of Gregg Allman‘s “Midnight Rider” don’t help matters. Be honest, is anyone going to do Neil Young‘s “Helpless” better than the man himself? And does the world need another cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”? Their cover of Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” is nearly as misguided Joan Baez doing Tears’ “Shout” on the Amnesty International tour many moons ago. “Within You Without You” and “Gimme Shelter” do little to build on the well-worn originals.

The best thing here is a lilting, oddly folksy take on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” complete with one of Smith’s trademark verse spitting poetic inserts. Also tasty are a wonderfully slinky exploration of Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” and a sprightly romp through Paul Simon‘s “Boy In The Bubble,” elevated greatly by Rich Robinson‘s hammer dulcimer cameo.

So much of this fits Smith like bad sackcloth. The material doesn’t jive with her voice or her general tenor. She sounds almost girlish in places, which is plain weird coming from a full-blooded woman like Smith. Despite her extensive liner notes it’s hard to fathom how she settled on these picks. It’s apparently a project she’s envisioned since the late ’70s but perhaps like many closely held personal visions it’s rarely what we imagined when held up to the light.

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