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CD Review: To: Elliot From: Portland

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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.

Track listing:

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)

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About Cara

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    Good review. I am pretty sure I am too much of an Elliott fan to listen to this. It is kind of cool that some people who were close to Elliott participated. It takes some of that “corporate bullshit” feel you mentioned out of the equation. Still, I think Elliott’s music means to much to me to hear it mucked with by anyone else.

  • http://indemnification.blogspot.com -E

    I think a lot of his fans will feel that way. His music definately touched (and still continues to touch) a lot of people on such a level that someone else covering it seems to taint it. But one of the beauties of Elliot Smith is that he still continues to garner new fans. So perhaps this is really a great album for the new fans to get a taste of just how much Elliot Smith meant to the indie music scene that these 15 bands felt like working on a tribute album. Even if it started because of the cororpate junk, the bands still had to want to do it.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    I’m with you. I think it’s cool that Elliott’s music touched enough people to want to do it. I’m even kind of glad that it’s out there. I just don’t think I can bring myself to actually listen to it.

    It’s odd, I woke up this morning with his song “Single File” in my head and couldn’t rest until I queued it up on my iPod. Then I find your review.

  • http://indemnification.blogspot.com -E

    Yeah, I completely understand not being able to listen to it. A couple of the songs on the album come pretty close to Smith’s beauty, but some are just different in just the right way to make you scratch your head and wonder.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    One of the headscratchers to me was “King’s Crossing.” I think it’s a brilliant song, one of Elliott’s best. It also seems so autobiographical (eerily so at the end) that anyone else covering it feels almost pointless.

    Other songs have a more ‘outward’ point of view and I can understand them being covered more easily (even if I might not like them). Beck did a cover of “Clementine” at an Elliott tribute show shortly after he died. I would like to have heard that.

  • elliottsmith!

    at least spell his name right! but other than that bitter mistake, it was a good review.