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To Elliot: From Portland – A Touching and Carefully Assembled Eulogy

Posted by April 16th, 2006 No Comments »

Various Artists
To: Elliott From: Portland
By Kasey Anderson

Most tribute albums are an exercise in redundancy; a collection of artists trying to emulate, imitate or “put a new twist” on a revered artist’s best-loved works. The formula works, to varying degrees, and has produced a handful of successful results, chiefly Lost Highway’s Hank Williams tribute, Timeless, but the tribute album rarely serves as more than a reminder that the subject’s catalog deserves another listen. While To: Elliott From: Portland does indeed serve as a reminder that Elliott Smith’s body of work warrants revisiting, it also serves as a eulogy to an artist who died at what was perhaps his creative apex.

The story is not a new one. Troubled, tortured artist, unable to wrestle himself from the grip of addiction and depression, takes his own life. In fact, a similar scenario played out a decade earlier in Seattle, as Kurt Cobain’s career came to an abrupt end, leaving millions of angry, misunderstood adolescents without a mouthpiece for their angst. However, where Cobain’s death was met with magazine covers, public vigils and a massive media circus, Smith’s passing warranted a few music magazine tributes, a few “we were afraid this would

Various Artists
To: Elliott From: Portland
By Kasey Anderson

Most tribute albums are an exercise in redundancy; a collection of artists trying to emulate, imitate or “put a new twist” on a revered artist’s best-loved works. The formula works, to varying degrees, and has produced a handful of successful results, chiefly Lost Highway’s Hank Williams tribute, Timeless, but the tribute album rarely serves as more than a reminder that the subject’s catalog deserves another listen. While To: Elliott From: Portland does indeed serve as a reminder that Elliott Smith’s body of work warrants revisiting, it also serves as a eulogy to an artist who died at what was perhaps his creative apex.

The story is not a new one. Troubled, tortured artist, unable to wrestle himself from the grip of addiction and depression, takes his own life. In fact, a similar scenario played out a decade earlier in Seattle, as Kurt Cobain’s career came to an abrupt end, leaving millions of angry, misunderstood adolescents without a mouthpiece for their angst. However, where Cobain’s death was met with magazine covers, public vigils and a massive media circus, Smith’s passing warranted a few music magazine tributes, a few “we were afraid this would happen” opinion pieces, then faded quietly away. So, rather than a week-long MTV video block, Smith received this incredibly touching and carefully assembled eulogy. To borrow a title from one of Smith’s gorgeous tunes, To: Elliott From: Portland is more a fond farewell to a friend than any sort of all-star collection of Smith devotees. It is a tribute in the truest sense of the word.

The album’s lineup includes artists who were friends, or worked directly with Smith. The Thermals’ version of “Ballad of Big Nothing” was recorded by Smith’s ex-girlfriend in the studio he helped start. The performances succeed in both honoring Smith’s aching, melodic songwriting and allowing each artist an opportunity to use Smith’s own words to say goodbye. It is a truly heartbreaking project, and though there are stand-out tracks (the Decemberists’ take on “Clementine” and Amelia’s interpretation of “Between the Bars” both sparkle), To: Elliott From: Portland is far more than a collection of songs, rather it is a collective goodbye to an artist who left his friends and contemporaries searching for the words to express their sorrow and regret. To: Elliott From: Portland is a beautifully painful reminder of exactly what we’re missing. – (7/10)


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