I'M NOT A PUSSY and I don't wanna sound like one, and that's why I've declined most opportunities to write about Elliott Smith post-suicide. After Smith split for the Great Whatever in October '03, the critical outpouring was gross, precious, and unbecoming. Honoring dude's life by writing about vintage sweaters and tearstained cheeks is bullshit and doesn't do the man justice. Because, really, that's what he was: a man. His songs, even at their most quote unquote emotional, weren't nearly as wussy or melodramatic as, say, Matchbook Romance or that dumb cunt from Dashboard Confessional. Smith's music was—and is—unflinching and fulla brutal, tore-up ache; over-sentimentalizing it in print is just reductive.
Still, with music this intimate it's easy to slip into breathless homage and maudlin indulgence, and that's how a lotta Smith's obituaries rolled. But fuck that; there are better ways to eulogize your heroes, and Expunged Records' new Elliott Smith tribute album does a damn fine job.
Expunged bossman Anthony Davis says one of the main ways Smith won him over were all the Portland references in his songs. Says Davis, "You just get the sense that the people in the songs are in Portland, having their hearts broken, or falling in love, or just hanging out... Since so much of his earlier work was about Portland, and since he gave so much to the Portland music scene, it seemed appropriate to have a tribute from Portland."
Hence, To: Elliott From: Portland, a 15-track CD of Portland bands honoring Saint Smith. In stores Tuesday, Expunged's record sees the Decemberists weighing in with a boozy, harmonica-led acoustic cover of "Clementine," Lifesavas turning "Happiness" into hiphop—my favorite track, which Spin called "not so much good as interesting," and Amelia, who plays Saturday's tribute show, nailing a note-perfect—though nicely countrified—"Between the Bars."
Smith's former roommate, Sean Croghan, who also plays the tribute night, re-does the unreleased "High Times" in classic hushy, barely there Elliott style, before kicking into a great, loud, noise-stained rock song. Eric Matthews' version of "Needle in the Hay" is maybe the most prophetic (or just telegraphing) of what would eventually happen to Smith; it's the kind of song that, in not so many words, verily foretells doom, ruin, and downfall.
Of course, when talking about death—especially of the untimely variety—the "what if" factor comes into play. Davis says, if given the chance to go back and tell Elliott to walk the line, he doesn't think it would make much difference. "I don't know that there is anything I could have said that would have changed him," he says. "I'm sure his close friends and family all had those talks with him. If I were to go back in time I would just tell him that he had a gift and that it changed peoples' lives. And I would thank him." You kinda just did, dude.
Dante's CD release show features performances by Telephone (We Are), Sexton Blake, Amelia, and Sean Croghan