May 052021

Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.

Patti Smith Twelve

Up until her release of Twelve in 2007, Patti Smith had not been much of one for studio covers, give or take her fabled extended riff on “Gloria,” which remains a live staple. Sure, she had the Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock’n’Roll Star” on her third album, and Dylan’s John Wesley Harding deep cut “Wicked Messenger” on her sixth, but she otherwise largely wrote her own, with her friends and band members. Twelve surprised fans and critics alike, not only by being all other people’s songs, but also by the twelve songs Smith had chosen.

Since then she has only made one further studio release, 2012’s Banga, which, save for her take on Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” was back to being her own work. But in the absence of new albums, she has released a slow and steady trickle of covers, as noted here and here. In a live setting, a whole different set of rules apply; her sets liberally sprinkled with a cornucopia of the songs of others, surprising in the range of artists, the arcane to the archetypal. (Let Setlist point the way, if you want a closer look.)

It is fair to say Patti Smith cuts an intimidating figure, and increasingly so over the years. She does not necessarily strike as someone who might consider fun and japes to be essential. So if you had guessed the sort of songs she might cover on Twelve, you’d have been surprised by her choices. Yes, there was a Doors song, but no Velvet Underground and nothing by any of her CBGB peers. If anything, quite a mainstream selection, with even some surprising ’80s choices, at least until you check her brief liner notes about each song, where it falls into place. Sort of. (Those surprised by the missing Velvets were able to take succor from the promo EP Two More, which dealt with that oversight by including a Lou Reed solo staple.) Shifting 11,000 units in the first month, it breached the lower half of the Billboard Top 100, and certainly restored her flagging fortunes, if not regaining the momentum of her early material. As ever, her flame shone brighter in Mediterranean Europe, where they like a bit of tortured artist with their aniseed drinks.

Patti Smith – Are You Experienced (Jimi Hendrix cover)

If you can just get your mind together, then come on across to me…..” So opens “Are You Experienced,” Twelve‘s first track, with Jimi Hendrix’s lyric a perfect phrase to describe the whole Smith MO, not only here but more generally. Stripping back the more psychedelic vibe of the original, Smith and her core band invoke more spooky high priestess than Jimi’s deranged shaman. She uses the semi-spoken middle section to cement the ritual, a string section swirling the end into a forest where, and you can have no doubt, the natives have wrought-iron soul. It is thus then a huge shock as the unmistakable opening of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” breaks out, a straight cover copy. Shock as in surely this isn’t what Patti listens to at home, for pleasure, Tears For Fears being, well, just a bit bed-wettery for her cool? Nice guitar solo, mind, from her son Jackson. Thankfully, it is Neil Young next celebrated, with maybe the song choice, “Helpless,” arguably a bit obvious, but she applies a wistful charm, less yearning than the original, with her go-to drummer Jay Dee Daugherty adding some plaintive background accordion.

You want obvious? “Gimme Shelter” reeks of Patti, all Keef, Mick a mere tolerance, and you’d feel shortchanged had she tackled anything different. Does it add anything to the Stones’ version, or any of the myriad other versions? Well, not really, but it had to be there, her yelping becoming increasingly desperate as it all unwinds. Flea and Tom Verlaine guest, but it is the vocal you dwell on. Strangely lacking from her live shows, she has not played it since 2010.

Patti Smith – Within You Without You (The Beatles cover)

If “Gimme Shelter” seems a reflex choice, surely, as her complementary Beatles cut, “Within You Without You” would be your last guess. Maybe not, the original awash with the mysticism George Harrison could always be relied upon to bring to the party. Thankfully, Smith leaves the sitar behind, cracking out a not half bad version of a song I would usually skip.

Mystical sotto-voce chanting starts “White Rabbit,” another shoo-in, heavier guitar than the original, and Smith’s warble more redolent of recreational practice than the pharmaceutical ice of Grace Slick. Two songwriting icons then get trotted out in turn, each with unexpected choices. As a Street Legal acolyte, “Changing of the Guard” is a Dylan song I can always listen to, the version fairly reverent and generally decent. Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble” seems an odd choice to cover, so imbued is it with the ambience of the parent album. Here it plods, if only by compare, if the bass tries energetically to keep a step ahead.

Patti Smith – Soul Kitchen (The Doors cover)

“Soul Kitchen” thankfully restores the balance, Smith channeling deep Morrison, in mood if not timbre. This version of the Doors classic paying nods towards Ray Manazarek’s piano, but in a whole spookier way. If it’s chitlins and biscuits you want, dare I say you are in the wrong basement. Smith is in her full druid mode, much as in the similarly Jimboesque “Are You Experienced” which opened the album. You are left feeling a little drained, up all night, wilting.

Which is exactly the required place to receive the much-acclaimed album highlight, a morbid bluegrass on downers take on “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The song is thoroughly mutated, extended and added to, free associative chants filling the gaps between the slowly dueling banjos. And not just any banjos, they being provided by highbrow musicologist John Cohen and Sam Shepard. Yup, that Sam Shepard, with famed NY crazy Peter Stampfel, the ex-Fug and Holy Modal Rounder, on muted fiddle. ‘Ludegrass, anyone? (I haven’t included a link as I can’t believe that you don’t know it!)

Patti Smith – Pastime Paradise (Stevie Wonder cover)

Top that? Sensibly Smith doesn’t try, a respectful cover of “Midnight Rider,” there for anyone not rewinding and playing the last track again. Sure, it’s good, but little to rattle the Allman devotees. “Pastime Paradise,” the album closer, is almost an afterthought, as most folk are still getting over “Teen Spirit.” This is a slight shame, as it is a decent sign off, and a reminder that, when Stevie Wonder wrote it, it had nothing to do with Gangsta’s.

Patti Smith – Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect (The Decemberists cover)

That would be it, were it not for the inevitable bonus track on the secondary release, a cloying and unsatisfactory version of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts.” Better by far the promo EP I mentioned at the start. “Perfect Day” is almost too ubiquitous and entry-level Lou for someone as indebted to his image as is Smith, and has been done to death by too many bad covers. But, game as she is, with the transposition of a single note in the piano intro, there is enough sparkle to buoy you through it. On the flip–and better by far–is “Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect,” a Decemberists’ deep cut that opens a window to what if Smith had concentrated on less well-known source material. An absolute delight, her version is gentler than the angularity of Colin Meloy’s template. Maybe something worth pursuing for a follow-up, Patti?

Twelve Tracklisting:

  1. Are You Experienced? (Jimi Hendrix cover)
  2. Everybody Wants to Rule the World (Tears For Fears cover)
  3. Helpless (Neil Young cover)
  4. Gimme Shelter (Rolling Stones cover)
  5. Within You Without You (Beatles cover)
  6. White Rabbit (Jefferson Airplane cover)
  7. Changing of the Guards (Bob Dylan cover)
  8. The Boy in the Bubble (Paul Simon cover)
  9. Soul Kitchen (Doors cover)
  10. Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana cover)
  11. Midnight Rider (Allman Brothers Band cover)
  12. Pastime Paradise (Stevie Wonder cover)
  13. Everybody Hurts (bonus track) (R.E.M. cover)

Two More Tracklisting:

  1. Perfect Day (Lou Reed cover)
  2. Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect (Decemberists cover)
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