To: Elliott From: Portland
I didn’t love, or even really like, Elliott Smith the first time I heard him. A friend burnt me a copy of Either/Or a few years ago and I drove around with it in my car for eight months without listening to it much. It wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco that I rediscovered that old, burned CD. Maybe it was the isolation of living in a new city, surrounded by strangers. Maybe it was the pouring rain and the sirens at night. Whatever — suddenly Elliott made so much sense.
But it’s not just me whom Smith, who died in 2003, had been eluding. Though he was praised by critics, nominated for an Academy Award for Good Will Hunting’s “Miss Misery,” and has legions of fans, Smith never reached the commercial success his finely written songs deserved. Chalk it up to the indie music scene, where albums that never hit the radio are burned and passed from person to person (myself included), or to Elliott’s lack of commercial appeal. Either way, it’s a shame.
Apparently, Smith’s hometown of Portland, Oregon feels the same way. This February, Expunged Records released a collaborative tribute album to Smith. Aptly titled To: Elliott / From: Portland, the album features 15 Portland bands mostly performing tunes from Smith’s Elliott Smith, Either/Or, and XO.
The album succeeds in its fleshing out of Smith’s subtle, even cryptic, depth. Whereas it can take months of listening to a Smith album to fully grasp the breadth of its content, To: Elliott serves up quick, easily accessible nuggets of breathtaking sonic beauty. The Decembrists do just this on “Clementine,” the album’s twangy opening track. Crosstide soars on an electronic take of Smith’s deceptively ethereal critique of Los Angeles’s capitalist culture in “Angeles,” exposing the dark underbelly of the tune. But the real gem of the album is Amelia’s version of “Between the Bars,” where she dives head-first into the mess and pain of Smith’s work, evoking the depth of emotion committed Smith fans have identified with for years.
— Sarah Hammill