Cover albums, it seems to me, are often the refuge of artists with nothing left to say, or of those who are playing out a contractual string. There are some notable exceptions to that, but when I read that Patti Smith's first post-Hall of Fame record, Twelve, is a covers album, I didn't begrudge her that victory lap, but I did lower my expectations a little.
Twelve, while perhaps not a revelation, is still a very pleasant surprise. On it, Professor Smith gives a fairly straightforward tutorial on rock history, covering an eclectic range of artists from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. The songs are well-chosen and well-played. Both the production and her voice are warm and intimate, and the effect is killer; evocative of a late night private show to which you are incredibly lucky to have scored tickets.
Even as a punk-poet, Patti has never been a stranger to classic rock covers -- like Van Morrison's "Gloria" and Hendrix's "Hey Joe" -- and the classic crowd is represented here as well, with songs from Dylan ("Changing Of The Guard"), the Doors ("Soul Kitchen"), Jefferson Airplane (a spooky "White Rabbit"), and Neil Young (a lovely version of "Helpless"). Other older songs include a faithful cover of the Stones' "Gimme Shelter," and a somewhat surprising version of the Allman Brother's southern rock classic, "Midnight Rider." And even though "Within You Without You" is probably my least favorite Beatles song (which still places it way above most things), here it is set to a swinging 6/8 cadence that is most appealing.
The album also boasts some unexpected choices of more recent vintage, including a warm, stripped-down version of Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants To Rule The World," and Paul Simon's 80s world-beat hit, "Boy In The Bubble." Patti and her band take the most liberties with their gorgeous version of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the record's centerpiece. It's a virtual photographic negative of the original, played acoustically as a folk song, prominently featuring banjo and mandolin. I know, it sounds like some Hayseed Dixie parody, but in this bands' hands it's pure poetry (even inspiring Patti to interject some of her own) and illustrates the genius of Kurt Cobain, even without the distorted guitars and punk rock nihilism.
The record is rounded out with a smooth version of Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise," which doesn't sound like typical Patti Smith territory, but serves as the perfect closer. I can't say that I've lived with it long enough to discern any overt theme in her selections, but the timelessness of all these songs render each of them, in its own way, immediately applicable to the present day, and beyond. And so too is Patti Smith.
MP3: Patti Smith - "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" from Twelve (Tears For Fears cover)
MP3: Patti Smith - "Smells Like Teen Spirit" from Twelve (Nirvana cover)