Tribute albums are weird things. Some are covers of the artist being honored, others are compilations of songs by other artists, some are great, and others are just plain awful. Naturally, this means that whenever tribute is made to an artist with an extremely loyal fan base, such as Elliot Smith, there will be a wide variety of opinions.
Stabbing yourself in the heart seems an awful way to die, but still a somewhat fitting way for Elliot Smith to have ended his life in October 2003. While his body may be dead, his fans certainly will not forget his legend as one of the greatest songwriters the indie music scene has ever known. And that status is most likely why 15 bands from Smith’s Portland, Oregon, have come together with this tribute from Expunged Records.
So is To: Elliot From: Portland a collection of good covers or butchered songs? Well, I think it falls in both categories. Some of the artists on this tribute album did a pretty good job of keeping Smith’s artistry in the song while adding their own touch. Other songs altered the late artist’s work enough that his dedicated fans will hate them. How would those not intimately acquainted with Smith’s work feel? About half of the songs will be very enjoyable; the other half will have mediocre songs and a couple that are simply painful to endure.
The question, ultimately, boils down to whether you want to purchase this tribute album or not. If a band you probably haven’t heard of adding synth to Elliot Smith’s “Angeles” isn’t something you ever want to hear, you probably want to skip this album. If the thought of a tribute album makes you think record labels are simply trying to capitalize on fans with the knowledge that the dead artist can’t say no, you probably want to skip this album too. But if you are a fan of Elliot Smith’s and leave wiggle room for someone else performing his songs or you like any of the artists on the album, To: Elliot From: Portland could find a nice home in your CD collection. Either way, this tribute album is definitely worth a listen. After all, it is getting some decent airplay on radio stations in various markets. And don’t forget that 10 percent of the net proceeds go to Smith’s foundation, “Free Arts for Abused Children.”
Of note for To: Elliot From: Portland:
Sean Croghan, a former friend and roommate of Smith’s, contributes a previously unreleased song, “Hard Times.” Eric Matthews provides us with a version of “Needle in the Hay” that was never released as well. Elliot Smith’s ex-girlfriend, Joanna Bolme, helped the Thermals record and mix their version of “Ballad of Big Nothing” at Jackpot Studios—the studio Smith helped founder Larry Crane get up and running. And Smith’s former Heatmiser bandmate, Tony Lash, mastered the album.
1. Clementine – The Decemberists
2. Satellite – The Helio Sequence
3. The Biggest Lie – Dolorean
4. Ballad of Big Nothing – The Thermals
5. I Didn’t Understand – Swords
6. Rose Parade – Sexton Blake
7. Between the Bars – Amelia
8. Needle in the Hay – Eric Matthews
9. Division Day – We Are Telephone
10. Angeles – Crosstide
11. Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud – Jeff Trott
12. Speed Trials – Knock-Knock
13. King’s Crossing – To Live & Die in L.A.
14. Happiness – Lifesavas
15. High Times – Sean Croghan (previously unreleased track)