It’s always a crap shoot when you check out a CD tribute compilation. Very few can stand on their own, song by song, right until the end without at least a few throw-away tracks. So when nighttimes.com got To: Elliott From: Portland [Expunged Records], a musical tribute to the late Elliott Smith—we didn’t know if it would be something to get excited about--or something to dread. To our pleasant surprise, this is perhaps the best alternative music tribute compilation we’ve found to date.
Expunged founder/president Anthony Davis told nighttimes.com, “I looked online to see how many people had done Elliott Smith covers. Hardly anyone had, I just couldn’t believe it. And no one had done a significant tribute album on him. It was so strange to me. I thought, ‘someone should do it. I’ll do it!’ Elliott Smith is my favorite recording artist of all time.”
Davis says that he felt the most appropriate tribute album would be something more personal than just “who’s cool right now.”
“Sure, we could have said, ‘Let’s get Iron and Wine, all those kind of people.’ That would be amazing,” he says. “But it makes a lot more sense to have the artists from Portland. There are so many great Portland bands and Elliott had such a huge influence on the Portland scene. I’m from Portland, I grew up in Portland, and a lot of the songs resonate with me because they remind me of Portland.” Davis reminisces of Portland’s annual Rose Parade. Not by coincidence, “Rose Parade” is also one of his favorite Elliott Smith songs.
To: Elliott From: Portland features notable townies such as The Decemberists ("Clementine"), Helio Sequence ("Satellite"), The Thermals ("Ballad of Big Nothing"), and Sean Croghan ("Hard Times"), a previously-unreleased track by Smith’s close friend and former roommate.
While bands like The Decemberists are already hugely popular, Davis may have come in at just the right time with this CD for bands like The Swords ("I Didn’t Understand") who’ve just put out the amazing new album, Metropolis; Crosstide (“Angeles”), Delorean ("The Biggest Lie"), and Amelia (“Between the Bars”)—all clearly on the verge of breaking big.
Also appearing on To: Elliott From: Portland is Eric Matthews' version of "Needle in the Hay"; a Sonic Youth-cool version of the track that is not to be missed. Matthews in fact, performed while Elliott was still alive on a version of "Needle in the Hay" that was never released.
"The original version of ['Needle in the Hay'] was built up with drums, trumpets, a harmonica, and various percussion instruments," says Matthews in the liner notes. "In the end Elliott decided to tear back down the arrangement and go for the more starkly acoustic version that we know today. In a tribute to the original version, I added new instrumental sections that produce a mournful and heavy quality that depicts the sad nature of what must have been Elliott's life and inner mind. The music is pretty but underneath there is a grave solemnity. It is the best tribute to Elliott that I can pay."
It should also be noted that The Thermals' version of "Ballad of Big Nothing" was recorded and mixed by Smith's ex- girlfriend Joanna Bolme (who was key in assembling From a Basement on the Hill, Elliott Smith’s posthumous release), at Jackpot Studios, a studio that Smith helped founder Larry Crane get up and running.
Says Sean Croghan in the liner notes, "After Elliott died I spent a lot of time listening to these tapes he had given me of his various recordings he made at home. 'High Times' hit me like a brick in the face. I recalled him playing the song live, years earlier, but I had never heard the recorded version. The song itself is a story, ultimately prophetic in regard to Elliott's relationship with drugs, of some soul here in Portland (oh yes it reeks of this city) trying to cop for the first time.
"Elliott was my roommate, my friend and partner in crime. I recall feeling totally lost when he left Portland for New York. Elliott was not good with phones and once he left I knew I shouldn't expect to hear from him until he came back. I had lost my confidant, my inspiration and, most painful to me, my friend. Someday though, I hoped he would return. Unfortunately this wasn’t to be. Now, not only I but the world will miss his immense talent, his shy smile and all the promise that will never be realized."
Of his version, Croghan states: "I wanted to try to create the tension I felt in the lyrics, the sense of a fate that is unavoidable and catastrophic. Even as the protagonist is telling us 'I feel fine,' it is obvious he has given in and the ride to hell has started, albeit on a fluffy pink cloud. Hopefully we recreated the anxiety, the feeling of Burnside with its pushers, homeless, and drunks, the sound of Portland in the 80s and 90s before developers tried to turn Portland into Disneyland."
Producer Anthony Davis says the To Elliott project took just about a year to put together and he’d only originally planned for 10 tracks, but with so much enthusiasm, he wound up with 15.
“There were a couple of bands I would have liked to have on the project that were just too busy,” Davis says. “It would have been great to have Stephen Malkmus on it, and Quazi would have been good. Tony Lash, the person who mastered the album, was one of Elliott’s band members with Heatmiser. It would have been great to also have him [do a song] on it, but these guys were too busy to do it in the timeframe I was looking for.”
Anthony Davis was never fortunate enough to meet Elliott Smith in person himself. “One of the greatest mistakes of my life,” he says, “was when I was in Salt Lake City [in 2003]. One of my girlfriend’s friends said, ‘Hey, Elliott Smith is playing. We should go see him.’ And I said, ‘Oh, he’s always playing in Portland. Let’s do something else.’ So we went to some stupid bar and hung out, and that was, like, one of his last live performances,” he says in a tone of utter disgust.
To: Elliott From: Portland is the second release on Anthony Davis’ Expunged Records label. The first was Josh Hodges’ band, Sexton Blake.
Can we expect more releases from Expunged?
“Well, while Sexton Blake garnered rave critical reviews, we sold only about 400 copies,” Davis laughs, explaining that he makes his living as an attorney. “After that, I said, ‘I’m never gonna do this again.’ But it’s an addiction—you can’t stop. I don’t have any expectations to make money, but I am hoping to at least break even with To: Elliott From: Portland. And there are a couple other bands in Portland that I’m talking to. I don’t know if they’re commercially viable, but I have a passion for them,” he laughs.
What about creating a second Elliott Smith compilation to include the bands he couldn’t get the first time?
“I literally love almost every Elliott Smith song,” he says. “I could do a 10-volume set.”
And we would eat it up.
Ten percent of the proceeds will be donated to the Elliott Smith Foundation's charity, "Free Arts for Abused Children". Release date: February 7, 2006.
The bands and songs appearing on "To: Elliott From: Portland" (in no particular order) are:
1) The Decemberists - Clementine
2) Helio Sequence - Satellite
3) The Thermals - Ballad of Big Nothing
4) Crosstide - Angeles
5) Amelia - Between the Bars
6) Dolorean - The Biggest Lie
7) Sexton Blake - Rose Parade
8) Swords - I Didn¹t Understand
9) Sean Croghan - High Times (previously unreleased track)
10) Lifesavas - Happiness
11) Jeff Trott ¬ Wouldn¹t Mama Be Proud
12) Society of People of Ambiance and Elegance - Speed Trials
13) To Live and Die in LA - Kings Crossing
14) We Are Telephone - Division Days
15) Eric Matthews - Needle in the Hay