Just because I'm not 17 anymore doesn't mean I'm relinquishing my devotion to the beautiful/angsty sounds of Elliott Smith; I still don't think it's merely self-loathing. In the interests of re-establishing my fandom, here's a track-by-track blowdown of the recent tribute album to him To Elliott, From Portland
[note: since it took me nearly half a year to finish listening to this enough times to do the write-up conscientiously, it goes without saying that this tribute album is an honorable but pretty much total failure]. Has to be noted that, in general, I'm surprised how resilient these songs are to a variety of approaches; Smith was often blamed (by his detractors, who are not to be found on this site) for being too one-note in his whispery, emotional approach, which is a) stupid but b) disproved by how these songs stand up. This is airtight songwriting:
1) "Clementine" The Decemberists — choosing to blow its wad of famous participant(s) first, the disk is front-loaded with the only band most people will be familiar with. Unsurprisingly, it's basically the Colin Meloy solo show - a dragged-out ballad which, unlike most of the covers, ditches the original picking, keeping the structure while rethinking the rhythm. That I don't particularly care for it has more to do with my general indifference to the Decemberists than anything.
2) "Satellite" The Helio Sequence — sticking pretty much exactly to the original guitar parts, the Helio Sequence add little besides some synth-strings on top. They're actually quite lovely, but every time the whole song threatens to explode into Mercury Rev-esque bombast (which the song could actually support), the Sequence back off. Frustrating.
3) "The Biggest Lie" Dolorean — a super-emotional song in its original recording, with some of Smith's quaveriest vocals (no wonder Bright Eyes covered it), here reprocessed as a much smoother country-type ballad. Nice.
4) "Ballad Of Big Nothing" The Thermals — I like what I've heard from The Thermals (i.e., a few singles), but this bratty cover contributes nothing. Original guitar parts are intact, but the crash cymbal is louder and more pronounced, hissing over everything; some of the parts go electric, and snotty high-pitched punk vocals are used. So no improvements, and no real differences.
5) "I Didn't Understand" Swords — bombast on a low budget, using cymbals, tympani and accordion. It works, but it sounds more like a prelude to a circus act than anything; file under "novelty." (Actually, it bears a freakish resemblance to the intro of Metric's "Live It Out," except not as good.)
6) "Rose Parade" Sexton Blake — judging by this cover, this guy is ready to go beyond Portland. One of the disk's two most effective moments, washing the fragile original under a wave of light static, glockenspiels, and other tools of retro-psychadelia. Lovely.
7) "Between The Bars" Amelia — This starts off as an undistinguished, by-the-book cover, the kind of thing that would be cheering to hear during an otherwise mundane opening act from some local obscurity, but slowly broadens out. Whoever Amelia is (and she certainly hasn't made Googling herself for more info any easier with her choice of moniker), she's got the Jon-Brion-arrangements-on-the-cheap thing honed: slowly stand-up bass, slide guitar, and accordion all kick in with style. Promising.
8) "Needle In The Hay" Eric Matthews — the disk's boldest and best cover. Eric Matthews is an exceedingly talented songwriter, arranger, and trumpet-player whose own work tends to get lost in overly complicated song structures and frustratingly oblique lyrics. Given a strong framework, he piles on angry guitars, a sinister trumpet arrangement, and his usual whispered vocals, which sound almost as scary as Elliott's fuck-you tribute to heroin. If you should hear one song from this tribute, this would be it.
9) "Division Day" We Are Telephone — Oh goody, instead of dignified piano and acoustic guitars we get goofy flanged guitar tones and generic c-major chords banged out on electric guitar for the chorus, with the original's restrained pacing now a definite drag. Oh, and then they alter the final chord change for no good reason. WTF.
10) "Angeles" Crosstide — Like a Junior Boys cover, but too wispy to make much of an impression, and those clanging snare drums really need to go; this song supports angularity surprisingly well, but the emo vocals aren't helping to sell that version, and where the chorus should build up fury just settles for crash cymbal hits. This needs either total rhythmic involvement or total electronic detachment; this is an unsurprising halfway compromise.
11) "Wouldn't Mama Be Proud" Jeff Trott — Unlike many of the covers here, this really does strike out on its own path; unfortunately, that means removing everything good about the original. Goodbye gorgeous slow-burn organ over brisk pace; hello mopey acoustic guitar and boring drum programming (except for the choruses, when they get inexplicably frantic).
12) "Speed Trials" Knock-Knock — Halfway decent, slowing it down a bit into half-assed trip-hop, complete with cut-rate female vocalist trying to add menace and sexuality to music which already has enough desperation to not need the former and little place for the latter. But I could see it working for the final credits of some kind of low-budget Sundance flick; the intro of jangly banjo at the end is a good call.
13) "King's Crossing" To Live & Die In LA — the only version here which could be counted as an improvement, slicings the running-time in half, omitting the unfortunate crackhead mutterings that make the opening of the original such an embarassment, and salvaging one of the most unfortunate casualties of From A Basement On The Hill
- a song that had the potential to be one of Elliott's strongest and scariest, but somehow came out too shrill and melodramatic.
14) "Happiness" Lifesavas — I never liked underground hip-hop much to begin with; the song can handle the drum machines (almost all of these songs seem able to handle anything you throw at them), but the first actual rap verse inserted mid-song is pretty unacceptable.
15) "High Times" Sean Croghan — This is an unrecorded Elliott song. It's messed-up with all kinds of messy trap-drumming in the background, and I'm not crazy about Croghan's voice. Sorry, I'll stick to my treasure trove of unreleased Elliott demos/live stuff instead (thanks Courtney Loveless
!). And no, I don't care if he was Elliott's friend.