alk about superfluity, man. The greatest covers album Patti Smith will record is a third of her first: Van Morrison’s spell-it-out “Gloria” and a snatch of the classic “Land of a Thousand Dances,” and even the best “My Generation” there ever was, spat like an angry Courtney Love trying to get her vomit in the trashcan (“I don’t need your fucking shittttttt!”). And wasn’t Smith’s biggest hit written by the Boss? It’s no secret that our proto-punk heroine likes the classic rock. So a lot of people are going to shrug at Twelve, a mixtape of her favorite karaoke tunes. Every one of these is in established classic (Hendrix, Allmans, Beatles) or at least by a classic artist (Dylan, Young, Doors) in the rock and roll canon, with the exception of a vinyl-only (dammit!) cover of the Decemberists’ “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect.”
Luckily, Smith’s an effin’-great singer and a reasonably good interpreter. For justification alone, skip directly to track four, a faithful, slightly bluesier “Gimme Shelter” that explodes so well, Scorcese would’ve been happy to replace one of his three or four damn plays of the original in The Departed with it had it been available in 2006. Her spare, bluegrass(!) arrangement of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” banjos and all, is actually quite gorgeous, though the power of her voice is undercut by her tendency to emphasize the wrong beat. I’m not so sure her mid-song spoken word ad lib is such a good “interpretation” either—“Children of the word, hounded / Shredding all veils and winding all sheets of the dead world,”—wtf?
Smith’s arrangements don’t get enough credit. Her reduction of Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise,” here to just creepy plinking piano and drums actually brings Mobb Deep or a RZA track to mind, and this isn’t even the version Coolio sampled (Man, she should’ve covered “Gangsta’s Paradise”). The ghostly track turns out perfect for her pipes to surround, and she pulls it off so well you wonder what she could’ve freestyled over Timbaland and Elton John’s “Two Man Show.” Her sexy rendition of Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble” forgoes the prominent accordion and Afropop orchestra of the original for a shiny acoustic guitar figure and a clever Dylan accent on the bridge.
A rare mistake is Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” a great pop song that Smith can’t quite make a great rock song. The glistening textures are way too clean for her to grip. (An unnecessary mini-jazz solo from her guitarist doesn’t help either.) Most of these succeed on the terms they were given, though: as predicted, she achieves a fine Jim Morrison impression on “Soul Kitchen,” and it doesn’t take much for her bracing moan to top Neil Young’s nerdy wheeze on “Helpless,” an accordion ballad that gives CD buyers a glimpse at the solid Decemberists cover they’re missing.
Remember that concept album Tori Amos did that was supposed to reclaim all those male-oriented anthems from their blowhard XY carriers? Smith paints over Amos’ tedious version and executes the idea so much better, without even bragging that she’s doing it.
Reviewed by: Dan Weiss
Reviewed on: 2007-06-21