Friday, July 06, 2007

Three Glasses: One half filled, one half empty, the other bone dry. Can anyone get me a drink of water, please?!

Patti Smith: Twelve (Sony, 2007).
What often gets ignored when talking about Smith’s career is that long before her ground-breaking debut, Horses, she was a rock critic at Creem, working alongside Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau. And, like so many critics, she developed her own biases and partialities – yes, folks we ain’t the altruistic bearers of wisdom and insight we think we are. And those subjective truths would come to permeate her music in the years and later decades to come. So it shouldn’t be a total surprise that in doing an album of purely covers that she would lean towards her contemporaries, like Young, the Stones, Beatles, Dylan, Simon and Hendrix, in her time legends all. What is a surprise, and a pleasant one at that, is how well done the album is. These aren’t just rehashes of some favorite song list she had stashed away. Smith makes each song her own. She manages to extract the original lyricism of the artist, adding her own sound in the process – that distinctive spoken / sung voice that has been her signature since 1975 – without doing violence to the song, something most cover artists, sadly, do on a fairly regular basis. Expecting a poet to be an interpreter is one thing; expecting an interpretation that enhances the song without reinventing it is a rare gift; one that even Kurt Cobain would heartily approve of. Not everyone who listens to this album will be enriched by its sound. You either like Smith and her voice or you don’t. And, to be honest, nothing here is groundbreaking. But on the whole I’m impressed enough to recommend it, and optimistic enough to think it will give you a fresh perspective on each song. The last time I checked, that was supposed to be the reason for a cover album in the first place. A minus

Paul McCartney: Memory Almost Full (Hear, 2007).
36 years of sub-par performances after an illustrious, if somewhat, brief – relatively speaking – stint as part of arguably the greatest rock-n-roll band of all time apparently have had no affect on his demeanor. So why should year 37 be any different. Because deep down all of us wonder what the hell happened to that wonderful, talented lad from Liverpool. John had his moments, George, too. Even Ringo turned some heads. So how come after all these years are we still anticipating that moment when Paul will thrill us with an effort worthy of his pedigree? Because deep down we want to believe he’s capable of it, and we don’t want to miss it. Fact is, with the exception of a couple of songs on Band on the Run and Venus and Mars, he has been what he always was: the silly romantic who loved love songs, who went for the hook no matter how corny because that’s where the bucks were. John brought balance to his romantic side, and together their genius soared. Apart, Paul foundered. It’s that simple. So, now he’s recording for Starbucks. More money, more airplay, and more anticipation that maybe this time, he’ll deliver on his promise. No such luck. Compared with the rest of his catalogue, Memory Almost Full might seem like a breath of fresh air, but therein lies the problem. His catalogue is so mediocre, almost anything would be an improvement. Not that any of this matters to Sir Paul. Airplay and apologists are what it's all about these days. If the man had cared at all, we wouldn’t be going on four decades waiting for a sign from the heavens. Personally, I stopped holding my breath years ago. As for the rest of you, if you’re still waiting for his masterpiece, I have some sobering news. Don’t hold your breath! B minus

Smithereens: Meet The Smithereens (Koch, 2007).
“The Beatles Tribute Album by America’s Phenomenal Pop Combo!” Seriously, that's what it says on the cover. Fortunately anyone who’s ever listened straight through to a Smithereens album knows this is at best hyperbole; at worst an oxymoron. The only thing vaguely resembling phenomenal in Pat DiNizio’s relatively innocuous career occurred in 1986 when, for a short time at least, he and his band mates enjoyed some fanfare off of a rather pedestrian debut effort, which garnered some airplay among the new-wave radio stations before it fell off the cliff into oblivion. That being said this attempt at covering a group that in its heyday would have run rings around the likes of the Smithereens just goes to show you that we are truly living in perilous times. C

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