Un-covering Elliott Smith

Expunged Records just released an Elliott Smith tribute album called To: Elliott, From: Portland. Pitchfork wrote an uncharacteristically interesting and clear-headed review praising it, amazed because – and I agree – it should not have worked. Then, after sampling it, I bought most of it on emusic. [I’m down with plugging this site. It’s a good site. It's an indie online music store. Kind of like *tunes, except that when you buy music from it, you actually own it and can play it on anything you want, not just macintosh products]

Elliott Smith’s music is very important to me. It occupies an emotional space that no other music owns for me. It’s mostly melancholy and I listen to it when I’m melancholy, but rather than making a bad mood worse, for some reason it always makes me feel better. I have no ability to describe this in words, though it’s clear to me. While I think excessive mopiness in music is a fair criticism in general, I don’t think it applies to Smith. Too much craft, intelligence and agression comes through for it to seem wimpy. I guess that’s why I can accept it. Besides that issue, I’ve known a few people who’ve dismissed Smith’s music as being derivative – of the Beatles, Nick Drake, etc. I simply don’t agree. In the broadest terms, there are similarities; the Beatles’ command of melody, chords, and, later, the sophisticated production techniques; Drake’s quietness. But other than that, Smith very much has a VOICE. The easiest way to see this is to hear other people perform his music, and to see if Smith comes through. For instance, I think a lot of Dylan songs make great covers, but I never hear a Dylan in them. Likewise, Radiohead’s music is so well crafted in every sense that it sounds fantastic in instrumental form, detached from the aesthetic qualities that band brings to their recordings – like on the Brad Meldau and Christopher O’Riley releases. However, while the strength of the writing stays in tact, no real personality does.

To: Elliott, From: Portland is not the first instance of published Smith covers. Christopher O’Riley, after releasing two records on Sony Classical of Radiohead “transcriptions” for the piano, has said he has plans to give Smith’s songs the same treatment soon. He's already released home demos of these on his website. O’Riley has an interesting approach in that, while an improv master like Meldau naturally twists and alters the material to the point where it can be called an interpretation, O’Riley, who is a successful classical concert pianist, tries to stay out of the way of the composition. Similar to the way that a Debussy piece for orchestra, for instance, would be transcribed for piano, or vice versa. A transparent approach like O’Riley's is a great vehicle for what I’m talking about with the uniqueness and personality of the writer coming through in ways that are more than musical.

Christopher O'Riley – Waltz #1

There is a jazz singer named Madeleine Peyroux who does a great Billie Holiday impersonation. She sounds fantastic, but she brings nothing distinct to the table at all. She just apes Holiday for all the commercial value it's worth. However, she had the good sense to cover Smith’s Between the Bars (probably my personal favorite of his) on her album Careless Love. Once again, Smith’s material, especially when handled by such a chameleon, has his voice stamped all over it.

Madeleine Peyroux – Between the Bars

I think what makes the Smith tribute album work is that most of the artists have pleasant but nondistinct singing voices. I don’t care for the Decemberists, and I was a big fan of the two albums Eric Matthews put out on Sub Pop in the 90s. But the rest of groups on the album were new to me. After hearing this, I'm convinced that any band, no matter how vanilla the singer or style, could probably make a big mark if they had writing on par with Smith. And I think it's the mostly the material here making these performances seem so strong. Even so, there are some really good production ideas going on all over it. Too many to write about. There are a few unfortunate instances (even Matthews’ sadly, an amazing arranger and performer in his own right) where the songs are just flushed out with big fuzzy rock arrangements – exactly the thing that Smith’s early quiet lo-fi recordings stood in contrast to in the grunge era, giving them extra value. But on the whole, I’m impressed with the amount of energy and creativity given to these arrangements.

My point is that a lot of these artists haven’t found their voice completely, and it’s a better vehicle to let Smith’s show through. Because he definitely had found his voice. And it’s a voice I really like hearing, even filtered.

The Helio Sequence – Satellite
Crosstide – Angeles


At 9:25 AM, Blogger margaret said...

"between the bars" is my favorite too. looks like we have something in common! i also love "christian brothers".

drink up baby
look at the stars
i'll kiss you again
between the bars
where i'm seeing you there
with your hands in the air
waiting to finally be caught

thanks for writing this. it was great, and it reminded me how much i love elliott smith, even though i don't really need to be reminded. but it never hurts.


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