Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Patti Smith - Twelve (2007)

I'm going to break away from strict reviewing narrative again for a moment to introduce a few changes to my blog here. First, I'm adding a new section to my reviews. As you may have noticed, they have so far consisted of a wandering introduction, factual information such as the setlist or tracklist, and a lengthy review. I am now going to try splitting the review into two parts. The first part will be a somewhat thorough analysis. This would be the section where I'll probably ramble the most and make the more obscure references. The second part will be the actual review, where I'll discuss the work or performance as a whole and make more general connections and commentary. Thus, the hardcore fan of whatever I'm writing about would ideally be interested in both parts, but a less dedicated reader may only want to weather the review. [Edit 2014.06.08: I gave up this format a long, long time ago, although some parts remain. These days I do whatever I feel like I need to do to get my ideas across.]

The second thing is that I want to begin rating these works and performances. I'd thought about it, but shied away until instigated. I'll be using letter grades. That means a "C" is average, "B" is fairly good, "A" is great, "D" is disappointing, and "F" is outright horrible. Pluses and minuses may be used too. (For reference, I'd give Morrissey an A, John Cale an A-, the Teardrops an A, and Smashing Pumpkins a B+.) [Edit 2014.06.08: See the About page for a better discussion of scoring.]

I'd also like to mention Pitchfork Media. Pitchfork is a music news and review website focusing on indie and alternative music. I'll say it now: I read their news section to keep up on what's going on, but I generally completely disagree with their reviews. Today's review will be a prime example.

Finally, to make it official, it is seriously a goal of mine to mention Brian Eno in each post. I'm not joking when I say he is basically the god/patron saint of good music. I may have to stretch sometimes, but his reach is far. Since he did favor a certain crowd, I may make connections through other musicians, and if I've already made that connection in a previous post, I won't explain the whole thing every time. Make sense? Feel free to propose other or better connections if you are aware of them. [Edit 2014.06.08: Obviously I stopped doing this at some point but I probably could still do it, if asked, for almost every review I've written.]

And now for the review. I'd heard about Patti Smith's Twelve a few months ago, and I was interested. I love Patti Smith even though I only have her debut album, Horses. It's such a great album that I almost fear disappointment in getting the following albums. The concerts from that period (circa 1975) are fantastic, too. The cover is great, the songs are great... it's one of my favorite albums.

Now, Twelve is a covers album, but Smith has always done covers of rock standards, straight from the start: Horses opened with an extended poetic discourse version of Them's "Gloria" and Chris Kenner's "Land of 1000 Dances" (made famous by Wilson Pickett) appears juxtaposed in the middle of one of Smith's extended originals. I promise I'll stop going on about Horses after one final comment: it was produced by John Cale (and John Cale → Brian Eno, as previously mentioned).

Artist: Patti Smith
Album: Twelve
Year: 2007
Label: Columbia

01. Are You Experienced? [Jimi Hendrix cover]
02. Everybody Wants to Rule the World [Tears for Fears cover]
03. Helpless [Neil Young via Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young cover]
04. Gimme Shelter [Rolling Stones cover]
05. Within You Without You [George Harrison via the Beatles cover]
06. White Rabbit [Jefferson Airplane cover]
07. Changing of the Guards [Bob Dylan cover]
08. The Boy in the Bubble [Paul Simon cover]
09. Soul Kitchen [The Doors cover]
10. Smells Like Teen Spirit [Nirvana cover]
11. Midnight Rider [The Allman Brothers cover]
12. Pastime Paradise [Stevie Wonder cover]

I find it funny that I know a lot of these songs by other covers (Devo does "Are You Experienced", The Sisters of Mercy do "Gimme Shelter", Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds do "Helpless", Echo & the Bunnymen do "Soul Kitchen"), but these songs make for interesting choices for Patti Smith. She's hailed as a punk (and rightfully so, at least back in the 70s), but only "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is anywhere near punk here - and Smith does it acoustic! She may have tamed down, but she's still a great singer.

My other effectively useless but "interesting" comment is that every song Smith covers (except "White Rabbit") was sung by a male, and every single additional musician that appears on the album (except her own daughter) is a male. She's always been sort of a tomboy (again, see Robert Mapplethorpe's cover shot on Horses) and persevered as one of few women in the rock/punk movement, but she clearly has no problem working with countless other men and many of her idols are clearly also men. That's fine, but she's arguably not much of a feminist. [Edit 2014.06.08: What was I thinking!?]

"Everybody Wants to Rule the World" is the only new wave song she covers, and she admits in the liner notes that she isn't very familiar with the song or band. A pity, but she does a good job with the song. She does a low-key take, which is a consistent theme on the album, but the point comes across well and the song works.

"Helpless" is done pretty straight-up. It's not really an improvement on the original, but it's a fun version. Some accordion helps with the feel. "Gimme Shelter" is also done pretty straight but feels more suited to Smith's style. Neil Young and The Rolling Stones are both idols of hers, but a poetic reading of Young's "Down by the River" would have suited better than "Helpless", and that same logic makes "Gimme Shelter" work. Tom Verlaine (once the guitarist/singer of Television, whose first demos were produced by Eno) and Flea (bassist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) guest on the song. Both are effective but feel a bit underutilized. (Both also appear on "White Rabbit", where they are even less utilized.) Where's the ripping Verlaine guitar solos as seen on "Break It Up"?

"White Rabbit" contains a few little poetic additions, but "Smells Like Teen Spirit" has an extended little spoken poetic bit after the second chorus to add a bit of personal Patti touch. Beyond that, the song is one of the more developed covers. It's done with banjos, acoustic guitars, and a violin, and although it's a bit weird, it works well. "Within You Without You" is the other winning cover, taking Harrison's spacey Indian philosophical drone and making the song groove a bit more like a rock song, with droning acoustic guitars throughout. The original isn't a bad song; it is usually overlooked in favor of some of the bigger songs on Sgt. Pepper's, but Smith treats the song well with her tribute.

This may not be a great record, but it sure is enjoyable. Smith should probably stick to throwing rock standard covers in the middle of her songs and mashing some oddball poems in the mix too instead of doing straight covers, but still. Pitchfork, in a fit of what must be spite, gave Twelve a 2.7 (of 10). Many of the songs here are fairly straight renditions ("Midnight Rider", "Helpless", "Soul Kitchen"), but I love a lot of these songs anyway, and it's not like Patti ever does a bad version, just sometimes nothing special. It's a fun listen, though. Enjoyable, if only arty in the case of the few inspired and creative renditions ("Within You Without You", "Smells Like Teen Spirit"). Other reviewers bash "White Rabbit", but I think that and "Are You Experienced?" sound great, if not too far out there.

Patti Smith is getting old, and as my mother commented when I mentioned the album, it's amazing that she's still going and still sounds as good as she does. Watching her "My Generation" performance on SNL makes me remember how crazy/cool she was. She's mellowed out, and I wish she'd play more guitar again (but I suppose she has so many friends in the business she doesn't need to), but she still makes good music. I love her craziness, her poetricks, her spite, her weird covers, her androgyny, and so on. I need to buy more of her records. And clearly, I should write a separate review for Horses.

Score: C+


Anonymous said...

This probably isn't news to anyone who writes this blog, but I recently became aware of Patti Smith's endeavors regarding photography. Freakin' good stuff man. There is a small feature inside the latest issue of American Photo on a plethora of rock stars and their doings in image-making. Definately worth picking up since it features Lou Reed's New York work, Patti Smith's still life stuff, one concert shot by Miss Maur, and a couple abstracts by Michael Stipe. Also throughout the issue you find musings on the connections between music and photography that are poignant to say the least.

Patti said...

I found a link for others interested:

I'm tempted to go and pick up a copy. I'm curious. I was totally unaware of the article. Keagan - thanks for mentioning this, and as always, please bring any knowledge you may have to the table.