Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Perfectly Average Patti

As appears in today's issue of The New School newspaper, Inprint:

Patti Smith

Covers have been an integral part of Patti Smith’s career. On her debut album Horses, “Gloria,” the first song, borrows some of its lyrics from Van Morrison’s pre-solo group, Them. Meanwhile, “Land” has Patti chanting the familiar melody of “Land of a Thousand Dances.”

So it should come as no surprise that the Patti Smith Band—consisting of Smith, Lenny Kaye, Jay Dee Daugherty and Tony Shanahan—would release an album of songs by artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Nirvana and Jefferson Airplane.

What does come as a surprise is how average Twelve is. It’s an album that isn’t quite good but can’t be called bad, either. When that’s the case, you usually think it will probably only get better with time. But after the first few listens, it lacks something.

Part of Smith’s staying power for over 30 years, while having only released one truly great album (the aforementioned Horses), is because of her intensity in delivering songs regardless of who the artist is. But on Twelve, although it’s clear she has the utmost respect for songs like Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” or Neil Young’s “Helpless,” they come across with a forced restraint.

For that reason, all those in attendance, myself included, were glad to have seen the final show of her Bowery Sessions. On April 24, Smith and her band played three consecutive shows at 6:30, 8:30 and 10:30 pm at the Bowery Ballroom. Although I was only present for the last one, from what I heard by the audience, it was the right one to be at.

Kicking off the concert with a slightly stagnant “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones, followed by REM’s “Everybody Hurts” (a song that doesn’t appear on Twelve) and a decent version of a terrible Beatles song, “Within You, Without You,” I was beginning to worry that my reaction to Twelve: The Album would be similar to Twelve: The Concert. But the next (and final) four songs of the evening proved me wrong.

Although The Allman Brothers Band’s “Midnight Rider” didn’t overwhelm the crowd, Smith seemed to care more about it than the songs beforehand. That trend continued with one of the highlights of both the album and the concert, “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane. I’m no Airplane fan, but Smith gave the song everything she had—especially with her husky and powerful vocals reaching their peak in lines like, “Go ask Alice/When she’s ten feet tall.” The night ended with “Smells like Teen Spirit,” which sounded like it could have been right off Nirvana’s Unplugged album, and a great rendition of “Gloria.”

If Patti could have lent the same enthusiasm to Twelve that she did to works like “Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger,” “People Have the Power” and the version of “White Rabbit” I heard live, a good but safe album could have become a great and rockin’ tribute to the artists that have inspired her the most.

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