Arts & Entertainment
3 min

CD reviews: Feist and Patti Smith

Where's the Feistiness? Everything old is old again

As you age, you long for the past, or at least you are continually reminded of it. Music really has to be the greatest art form for this. Instantly a song can bring back a moment in your life, a smell of an era gone by… a taste. Music transports. It’s a time-travelling catalyst for reexamination.

Also with age (if you’re lucky) comes experience and a depth of pop culture knowledge. You can become a bit of a bitch about it, too. You roll your eyes as you say to your young friends, “Heard that one before. Bjork’s ‘It’s Oh So Quiet?’ Honey, Betty Hutton did that song in the 1940s and better!”

Is it just me or has the world got incredibly nostalgic lately? It really started big time in the last decade of the 20th century. When they weren’t playing the modern world pop stylings of Sade or The Gipsy Kings, every coffee shop, retail outlet and TV commercial was playing standards collections. Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan had all died in the 1990s just when their music was getting respect from a new audience.

It helped Harry Connick, Linda Ronstadt and Natalie Cole (and dead dad Nat) sell millions of records as they slickly repackaged old hits for a new generation, or helped rekindle mom and dad’s affection for songs of old. The 21st century is all about repackaging the music of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Starbucks plays The Jam, Echo And The Bunnymen and Elvis Costello like they used to play Tony Bennett and Chet Baker. These are the standards for the people in their 30s and 40s.

The new albums by Feist and Patti Smith are so shockingly bland and pretty that both artists come across as the new Sade or Tony Bennett. Feist’s new album The Reminder is a ballad-heavy and uninspired affair. It doesn’t have the eclectic balls of her 2004 debut Let It Die.

Like Sade before her, she’s got that “new” slick cafe chanteuse vibe going on. Physically, she’s a quirkier kind of beautiful and her hair isn’t as big as other divas, so people seem to take her more seriously as an artist. That she’s accompanied by a banjo, a flugal horn and melodica makes it even better for people to think she’s deeper and more inventive.

She’s written all of the songs on The Reminder. She seems to really mean what she’s singing. But for me Feist’s singing has more of a speaking-in-tongues quality this time out. Her mumbling style is similar to The Cocteau Twins’ vocalist Liz Frazer (when she used to warble her own made-up language). But Feist is singing in English; her unintelligible words make it standard background music.

“I Feel It All” is a good example of the safe adult-contemporary vibe that permeates the album. The production is eclectic and a little too cute for my taste as Feist’s voice flutters about singing lines like, “Oh I’ll be the one who’ll break my heart,” or, “Stranded in a fog of words/ Loved him like a winter bird.”

I’m unaffected by her sadness and precious melodies. It drips of contentment dressed in a self-doubting facade.

Patti Smith is a goddess. She can’t be touched. She’s allowed to make mistakes. Her new album Twelve is one big creative mistake but it may just become this Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductee’s biggest hit. She deserves it. She’s 60 years old and, as well respected as she is, she’s never had a big hit in her career.

When I first heard that Smith was doing a covers album, I was jazzed. What eclectic mix of songs would she choose? Would they be as inspired as her mind-blowing covers of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” or The Who’s “My Generation” or, better yet, her awesome version of Debby Boone’s sappy “You Light Up My Life” (on the 1979 TV show Kid’s Are People Too)?

Sadly, Smith has picked such obvious songs and done them all so meat-and-potatoes-like that they’re not so much reinterpretations but straightforward unnecessary covers.

Why do Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?,” The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” or Neil Young’s “Helpless” if you’re not gonna take them higher? Her versions of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Tears For Fears’ annoying “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” are just there.

She does sing the tunes with sincerity and respect, but there’s no angst or spirited whimsy. She wouldn’t be out of place singing this stuff on the old Lawrence Welk Show. Read the liner notes, though. Her anecdotes on the artists and what their songs mean to her is one hell of a read. She’s such a delight, always thinking, forever a class act. Just not on this recording.

She says of the album: “Twelve truly had a mind of its own, as if formed by an unanticipated inner narrative; like the moves on Alice’s chessboard, it became a combination of what is written and what we write ourselves.”

I love what she says there but I fear that with this album, Starbucks has become her new CBGBs. I hope I’m wrong.