In a lot of ways, this is a really bizarre release — even by the artist’s own standards — for Patti Smith.
At this late stage of her career — Patti Smith was just inducted into this year’s class of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame — an album of well chosen covers by other artists could either be regarded as a brilliant career move or an uncharacteristic attempt at commercialism.
Twelve is actually neither of these things, which is what makes this album such a perplexing proposition. As hardcore fans already know, Patti Smith’s best work can be found in the stream of consciousness poetry of such late seventies albums as Radio Ethiopia and the brilliant Horses. What many more casual fans may not realize is that Patti Smith’s live performances from this same period were often chaotic affairs, as notable for the band’s choices of cover versions by other artists as they were for Smith’s own cosmic excursions into the spoken word.
Right now you can even find one such show from 1979 at CBGB’s in New York streaming for free at Wolfgang’s Vault. Here the original Patti Smith Group charges through versions of everything from Pete Townshend’s “My Generation” to John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey.”
Coming nearly thirty years after such exhilarating live performances as that, Twelve is Patti Smith’s first album to marry these two sides of the artist on a single album. On these cover versions of songs by the Stones, Doors, and Nirvana — as well as less likely choices by Tears For Fears, Gregg Allman, and Stevie Wonder — Smith shows both intensity and reverence. She also gives each song here her own unique individual stamp, occasionally in the form of her own stream of consciousness poetry, while remaining true to the spirit of the original versions of these songs.
Nowhere is this more evident than on her radical reworking of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Patti Smith re-envisions the post-punk anthem as a gothic sort of folk tune crackling with banjos and violins, before injecting some of her most hauntingly beautiful spoken poetry since “Birdland” from the Horses days. More straightforward (and unlikely to the point of being a little strange) are Smith’s versions of Gregg Allman’s “Midnight Rider” and Tears For Fears “Everybody Wants To Rule The World.” Both of these receive very straight sounding treatments by Smith — although her haunting vocal style adds particular weight to the dark lyrics of Allman’s tune.
Coming closest to the punk rock abandon of her 1970’s concerts with the original Patti Smith Group — and also the strongest vocal performance here — is Patti Smith’s take on the Rolling Stones classic “Gimme Shelter”. While nowhere near as chaotic and incendiary as those legendary performances, here Patti Smith shrieks, howls, and growls her way through the lyrics with the sort of passion and intensity that lends a newly dark urgency to the original lyrics.
Curiously a reading of “Soul Kitchen” by Jim Morrison, by all accounts one of Smith’s biggest influences, is much more somber sounding. Smith’s version of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” — proceeded as it is by a psychedelically tinged spoken word intro — is also still a pretty straight forward reading. More interesting is her take on Bob Dylan’s overlooked “Changing Of The Guard,” reworked here in a lushly strummed (and gorgeous sounding) acoustic arrangement which allows the lyrics to stand more front and center than the more familiar electric version from Dylan’s Street Legal album.
If you’ve only previously thought of Patti Smith as a poet, Twelve is an album sure to surprise you as much as it did me. While Patti Smith’s voice may be an acquired taste to some, her vocals here are not just strong, they also reveal her considerable, previously hidden powers of interpretation.
Patti Smith’s Twelve features Patti Smith’s original band — Lenny Kaye (guitar), Jay Dee Daugherty (drums) and Tony Shanahan (bass, keyboards) — as well as guest appearances by the likes of Flea, Tom Verlaine, the Black Crowes Rich Robinson, and playwright Sam Shepard (on banjo). It will be available in stores on April 24.