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Wednesday, May 16, 2007 02:35 am

Delayed rite, done right

Patti Smith finally gets around to covering her favs

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Patti Smith Twelve (Columbia)
Untitled Document Whether it’s to allay the anxiety of influence, honor important forebears, or simply work through a case of writer’s block, most musicians consider the covers album a necessary rite of passage. Even such songwriting heavies as Bob Dylan and David Bowie have succumbed to the temptation; Bryan Ferry, bless his little Dylan-stalking heart, has managed to turn his idolatry into a cottage industry. So why not Patti Smith, who, despite her undeniable songwriting chops, is at heart a fan, a former rock critic who metamorphosed into a rock star by dint of brute desire? Summoned by the siren song of rock & roll, she forsook her Jehovah’s Witness upbringing to bear witness for sweatier, sexier deities. Who can forget the evangelical fervor of her versions of “Gloria” and “Land of a Thousand Dances,” the white-hot iconoclasm of her take on “My Generation,” the counterintuitive but somehow exactly perfect reading of “When Doves Cry”? Really, the most mysterious thing about Twelve, Smith’s first all-covers project, is that it took her so long. According to the CD’s liner notes, she began toying with the idea as early as 1978, compiling countless lists of promising songs. Her selection strategy for Twelve, however, ended up being much less systematic. Three of the songs just happened to be playing over the sound system of her neighborhood hangout; another came to her in a dream and was then mystically reinforced by the blaring radio of a garbage truck. This isn’t a set of Smith’s favorite songs, an aural Bildungsroman tracing her development from ardent disciple to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee that she is today. Instead, it’s a tarot spread, a convergence of chance and opportunity. Its aleatoric origins might appeal to Smith’s spiritual side, but they don’t always result in stellar performances. (Just because your favorite barista has an iPod doesn’t mean he’s Hal Willner.) Although her reverence for the material is never in question, several of the tracks (Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” the Doors’ “Soul Kitchen,” Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise”) never quite take off — sometimes because they just don’t suit her style, sometimes because her interpretation isn’t novel enough to overcome the karaoke factor. As a longtime Patti partisan, I would gladly listen to her sing Robert’s Rules of Order, but not everyone is so accommodating. Three decades in the making, Twelve should seem more like a mission statement and less like a free-writing exercise. That said, it’s still a Patti Smith CD, which automatically makes it better than most new releases. Her longtime band — guitarist Lenny Kaye, bassist/keyboardist Tony Shanahan, and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty — is still rock & roll royalty, and Smith, the coolest sexagenarian on the planet, is still her beautiful, irreducible, stubbornly earnest self. Her voice has the same deep brightness, the tender stridency of a golden foghorn. Lesser singers sound as if the words mean something to them; Smith sings as if the words are everything to her, as if she would eviscerate herself to get them to you. When everything comes together — style, sensibility, and source material — the rush is almost overwhelming. Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced” forgoes the standard guitar pyrotechnics and forges a kind of shamanist boogie from pellucid cello, squawking clarinet, and flickering drum fills. Twelve’s hidden track (No. 13, but who’s counting?), R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts,” is a wrenching lullaby; George Harrison’s woefully underrated “Within You Without You” is a dharmic hymn. The absolute highlight, though, is “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a banjo-fueled back-porch dirge that transforms Kurt Cobain’s orgy of self-loathing into a sorrowful paean to our fallen world.
Contact René Spencer Saller at rssaller@core.com.
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