Saturday, January 20, 2007

I was walkin' slow to a dirty dive

I received To: Elliott From: Portland for Christmas, which is a tribute album to the late, great Elliott Smith. As you may or may not know from reading around on my site, tribute albums tend to be hit-or-miss with me. There's a balance that needs to be met between honoring the song by staying fairly faithful and reimagining the song to give it the artist's own imprint. Obviously, it's never going to stand up to the classic, raw recordings from Smith himself (at least not for me, as I would probably rank Elliott as the best all-time musician), but how does it work as its own release, and does the disc do justice to Elliott's delicate songwriting?

I'd have to say that all-in-all it does a better job than many similar compilations, including several other Elliott Smith tribute albums I own. The album opens with a track by the most popular band on the compilation--The Decembrists--and I have to say that it is one of the weakest covers present. They take Smith's melancholy last-call melody, "Clementine," and turn it into some sort of campfire singalong. The pacing is much too slow and lilting. The good thing about having such a weak cover at the beginning of the album is that your enjoyment level can only go up from there. Right?

Pretty much, yeah. The Helio Sequence contributes a listenable-but-highly-forgettable version of "Satellite," and Dolorean has the album's first real winner with their "The Biggest Lie," which is transformed into some sort of country ballad (old country, though--not yer Shania Twain bullspit). The Thermals cover Either/Or's "Ballad of Big Nothing," and the cover works in spite of its whiny vocals.

It's at this point that the album kicks into gear (like a pimped-out sports car?). Almost everything from this point on is gold. The biggest mid-album stand-out is Eric Matthews' (the musician's, not the Boy Meets World character's) version of "Needle in the Hay." Elliott originally wrote the song to include expanded instrumentation, including the trumpet (which Matthews allegedly played for that version of Elliott's song). This version is a tribute to that, but so much more as well. While the original version (from Elliott's self-titled LP) is a driving acoustic downer of a song, Matthews incorporates Weezer-esque electric guitars, new riffs, and a horn section in tribute to Elliott's original mix. It's the most rousing track on the album, but somehow maintains the same oppressive feel as Elliott's more downbeat piece.

"Happiness" is another piece that turns the original song on its ear, but this time it's not as simple as the instrumentation. Lifesavas sampled Elliott's hummable chorus and wrote their own rap around it. I'm not a huge rap fan, but this piece works surprisingly well. It's nice to see something like this appearing on a compilation that for all intents and purposes could have (and almost did) stock itself entirely with indie-mope acoustickers.

The flow of the album is brought to a screeching halt, however, by the piece that proved to be the advertised selling-point of the album: Elliott's friend Sean Croghan's cover of a previously-unreleased song--"High Times." Elliott's version of this song leaked from an anonymous source a month or two before this compilation comes out. As such, the novelty wears off of Croghan's piece quickly, and it becomes easier to see it for what it is: a poor recording. I'm not an advocate of technically-talented singing--far from it. I listen to Lou Reed, who talks more than he sings; to Nick Cave, who drones his deep bass voice unpleasantly; to Tom Waits who rasps; hell, even to Elliott himself, who could be accused of whispering his lyrics and was certainly no crooner. However, Croghan does a poor job here, and he lacks one thing the aforementioned artists have: delivery.

To: Elliott From: Portland is surely an uneven work. The tracks range from the brilliant to the poorly conceived, with a significant amount of blah in the middle. However, that's entirely forgivable in a compilation of disparate artists, as there is no particular semblance of "flow." The album is worth a purchase if you're an Elliott freak, because there are some interesting reimaginings of his classic tracks, but I'd strongly recommend picking up one or two of Elliott's discs instead if you don't own them.

Eric Matthews: Needle in the Hay
Lifesavas: Happiness
Elliott Smith: Needle in the Hay
Elliott Smith: Happiness

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