Monday, April 23, 2007

Patti Smith's classic rock jukebox

If I told you that Patti Smith had a covers album (Twelve) featuring her versions of Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced," Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble" and Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," once you got past your disbelief, how scared would you be?

I happen to love her and I'd actually go out on a limb to say that her last album (Trampin') is her best record after her debut. Plus, seeing her live is something that is compulsory to do more than once. It's not just that she's got Lenny Kaye and JD still in the band but just that she's such a presence on stage.

But even the great ones make mistakes now and then. There's nothing wrong with her toasting some of her favorite tunes- hell, it's been done plenty of times by other rockers like John Lennon, Elvis Costello, Guns N' Roses (which is still their last album so far). Even Patti herself has hitched herself to some interesting choices in the past like "You Light Up My Life" (which she genuinely loves as a tune) and Prince's "When Doves Cry."

But here, the element of surprise is definitely missing. She's a classic rock fan and though that's something I consider myself too, it would have been nice to see more less-obvious choices. She does OK by Neil Young/CSNY ("Helpless"), the Stones ("Gimme Shelter") and the Doors ("Soul Kitchen") but with doing covers, the trick is to put your distinctive stamp on the songs and make them your own. That she really doesn't do here, sad to sad and when it's an alternate version that doesn't teach you anything or make you reconsider the song, it becomes kind of useless. As for Hendrix, Simon and the Airplane, her versions just don't pan out at all and even sound kind of embarrassing. The most off-beat and interesting selections are Stevie Wonder ("Pastime Paradise") and Tears for Fears ("Everybody Wants to Rule the World") but for the former, I'd rather hear Coolio rap over it and for the later, I'll take the original in a second.

But there is one masterful stroke buried on this otherwise unfortunate album. On paper (or on your screen), you'd think that the choice of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" isn't just obvious but also totally misguided. But you'd be wrong. Wisely, Patti doesn't attack it as a rock/grunge anthem but reconsiders it as an eerie folk song, which Cobain himself wouldn't or couldn't do on Nirvana's MTV Unplugged show. By taking it at a slower, calmer pace, we're forced to hear the words and savor how creepy and yet somewhat knowing they are. And just because she's unplugged, that doesn't mean that she and her band can't build up to a climax and get unhinged at the end. You just get the feeling that Kurt would have been proud not just to hear her cover the tune but also the way she sinks her teeth into it.

If only she did the same thing on the record of the album... Still, it isn't nearly as horrible (or funny) as Golden Throats.



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