By Joseph Brogdon
Ah, the tribute album: it’s something that’s quite hard to tackle with any measure of success. Second renditions seldom come close to their originals. We’ve all heard them-some decent, some almost laughable, and others that are actually, on rare occasions, quite good.
In the three short years since his passing, several tribute albums have been released to honor Elliott Smith, arguably the best singer/songwriter of the past decade. From string quartets and classical pianists to rappers and generic indie rock groups, it seems as if everybody wants to pay tribute to this hauntingly emotional artist.
Classical pianist Christopher O’Riley does not disappoint in his chilling renditions of Smith tunes from various albums on his tribute, “Home To Oblivion.” An accomplished and recognized classical pianist, O’Riley hosts a public access radio show, showcasing young classical artists. While primarily focusing on his radio show, O’Riley found time to record two albums of classical renditions of Radiohead songs. Following the success of his Radiohead tribute albums, O’Riley began a similar project regarding Elliott Smith. A self confessed Elliott Smith fanatic, O’Riley feels like the true success created by “Home To Oblivion” lies in exposing an older classical music crowd to the evocative genius of Elliott Smith, as well as introducing a younger generation to the beauty of classical piano. With no vocals, relying only on his piano, O’Riley leaves almost no room to dissatisfy Smith’s truest fans.
Although he was not born in Oregon, Smith spent the majority of his life residing in the Portland area. In 2006, members of the wide-ranging music scene that thrives in Portland undertook the task of providing a tribute to Smith, justly titled, “To: Elliot From: Portland.” Artists ranging from vastly recognizable bands like The Decemberists and The Helio Sequence to virtually unknown acts contributed tracks to this tribute. A previously unreleased Smith song, “High Times,” recorded by a former friend and roommate, Sean Croghan, is one of the tribute disc’s highlights. Croghan’s rendition is the success of the album, primarily because it greatly reflects the angst and distress that is highly evident in both Smith’s vocal and guitar sound.
Though points throughout the disc shine, there are also some interpretations that Smith fans may not feel are justified. Not to disrespect hip-hop, but Lifesavas’ rendition of “Happiness” frankly seems unfitting. Overall this tribute album, as most are, is just mediocre. While it has its high points, the album can be summed up in one simple word— meh.
A third tribute that will receive no form of acclaim here is a cut-and-dry tribute album with the quite fitting title “A Tribute to Elliott Smith.” The artists are virtually unrecognizable; this could be partly attributed to the fact that many are from Japan, The United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Even so, these covers reek of bands and singers trying their absolute hardest to emulate every aspect of Smith’s unique sound. Nothing about this album adds any originality to the songs.
The last tribute is a compilation of Smith songs aptly titled “The String Quartet Tribute to Elliot Smith.” This quartet takes a piece of music and reproduces it note for note. The same quartet is responsible for butchering the likes of Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, and David Bowie. Simply put, if you want to hear classical renditions of Elliott Smith songs, stick to O’Riley’s album, “Home To Oblivion.”To the avid Elliott Smith fan, none of these albums will match up to the symphonic bliss created by his repertoire of solo albums. The power and emotion brought about in albums like “From a Basement on a Hill” and “Either/Or” will never be duplicated. It is, however, interesting, to hear the renditions of his truly moving songs, be they slaughtered or beautiful.
Elliott’s family has also set up the Elliott Smith Memorial Fund, a charity organization that donates proceeds to Free Arts for Abused Children. For fans that have the same personal connection to his songs, and want to help out, check out Sweet Adeline.net for more information, and for tons of other stuff about Elliott Smith.
For a personal reflection on Elliott Smith by Bryan Kerwin, go to the Buzzsaw Blog
Joseph Brogdon is a freshman exploratory major who really wants to hear the string quartet/hiphop mash-up of “No Name No. 5.” If you’ve got a copy, email it to jbrogdo1[at]ithaca.edu