Tribute Album of the Week

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

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