- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2007

Patti Smith



Though it doubtless will hurt some to hear it, punk-rock icon Patti Smith is 60 years old. Last October, she played the last set at the downtown New York club CBGB before its doors shut forever. Last month, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her new album, recordings of 12 cover songs, sounds as if it might make a nice cozy bookend to the of Hall of Fame induction, but it’s a lot more than that.

The album’s sale date is tied to the online release of “Without Chains,” a song Miss Smith wrote and recorded about Murat Kurnaz, a German-born Turkish citizen who was incarcerated for four years at Guantanamo Bay before being released without charge. That song, available on pattismith.net, is more interesting for its political content than it is compelling as a piece of music. It invites comparison with Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane.” Both rely on a straightforward lyrical approach, and both strive to create moral tension with haunting violin interludes.

Paradoxically, perhaps, Miss Smith manages to extract a great deal more passion and profundity from her cover of the Tears for Fears song “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” From the opening line — “Welcome to your life” — it’s clear that Miss Smith has managed to tease out the anthemic subtext that was absent from the original chart-topping version. Jay Dee Daugherty’s deceptively simple drum part lends a touch of swing to the downbeat dance track, while a guitar solo by longtime Patti Smith collaborator Lenny Kaye offers a nod to the original recording.

She further mines the musical period after her own prime with a version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” She angles into the number with an acoustic bass line overlaid with banjo and accordion. As is the case throughout the album, Miss Smith pays close attention to diction in her singing, here sounding out the word “dangerous” that was famously elided into two syllables by Kurt Cobain in the original. The effect is a little jarring but a sure sign that Miss Smith is putting an indelible new stamp on the song.

On her version of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” Miss Smith’s precise diction offers the final word on the lyrics to this often misunderstood song, originally sung in an ecstatic babble by Mick Jagger. (This critic was relieved to learn, once and for all, that it is not a paean to Piscataway, N.J.)

By and large, Miss Smith’s covers do honor to the material. She puts an earnest but not reverential spin on songs by Mr. Dylan, the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Jefferson Airplane, the Doors and others.

There are a few missteps: Her breathy version of the Jimi Hendrix psychedelic era classic “Are You Experienced?” which features a low electric feedback buzzing in counterpoint to a hysterically sawing violin, seems ill-considered. Mr. Simon’s “Boy in a Bubble” feels a little perfunctory and was never a great song anyway.

On the other hand, Miss Smith’s aggressive vocals balance beautifully with the drums and organ on the Doors’ bluesy “Soul Kitchen.” Miss Smith’s voice is most at home on Neil Young’s intensely personal “Helpless.” With the humble accompaniment of organ and acoustic guitar, Miss Smith’s voice soars and dives along a lyrical path of desire, memory and regret. It is a compelling reminder, as if one were needed, of why Miss Smith commands such a prominent place in the history of rock music.

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