Patti Smith - Twelve (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review

Patti Smith

Twelve (2007)


This is a frustrating album. Oh it sounds wonderful, but I can't get past the bewildering song choices on the punk godmother's cover project. The songs Smith interprets here aren't only classic -- they're iconic. These are songs that, for the most part, I wouldn't want my favorite bands to ever think of covering. I know they'd ruin them. They'd collapse under the weight. It's daring if not careless to even attempt these tracks, yet paradoxically so safe to work with such universally known quantities. This approach lacks the sense of shared discovery, the notion that the performer is introducing you to one of some prior hidden gem. We've all heard the Beatles. Patti Smith, herself an icon, is one of the few artists that can make a project like this work. While Twelve may succeed sonically, even Smith can't shake the overall sense of "why" surrounding this collection.

"Are You Experienced" and "Gimme Shelter" fit that iconic description. The former is understandably introspective and reined in, as you don't attempt to out-Hendrix Hendrix, but the latter is fairly by-the-numbers and Smith's smokey voice sounds great channelling Mick's swagger. Yet on the most inarguably classic material, Smith never seems to acheive anything higher than extremely apt copies of the originals. "White Rabbit" seems like an obvious choice, if for any other reason to hear Smith's take on the wonderfully psychedelic (and pre-boring) Grace Slick. Again though, the result is nothing much more than a faithful rehash. Her version of Neil Young's "Helpless" is hollow, and (comparatively) under-the-radar choices like Paul Simon's "Boy in the Bubble," Gregg Allman's "Midnight Rider," the Doors' "Soul Kitchen" and even Dylan's "Changing of the Guard" never manage to rise above. My affinity for original likely clouds my judgement, but Smith's take on "Within You Without You" is rather lovely. She also makes the best out of Tears for Fears' (huh?) `80s staple "Everybody Wants to Rule the World." In fact, I'd be perfectly happy never hearing the original again. We can keep this one instead.

The biggest potential train wreck is the album's best track. I'll admit that despite the umpteen times I've heard it, I've never really known what Kurt Cobain was saying in a lot of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" but Smith carefully articulates every syllable in the haunting bluegrass version offered here. Of all Twelve's tracks this is the most dramatically reinterpreted. The song bridges into an original spoken word piece, a bit of "Piss Factory"-bred gutter poetry, nearly halfway though. The whole composition's intriguing, and Patti never makes the mistake of trying to catch the zeitgeist of the original.

These aren't songs that most artists would dare cover on a studio recording. These are songs you cover when you're invited to participate in some high profile charity tribute, when you're doing it for a cause and you're thus shielded from criticism. Twelve, as a concept, is saved from collapsing under its own audacity merely by the fact that it's a Patti Smith record. That's enough to hold it together, but it's certainly not essential.