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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Message to a mythical musical master

Published: February 3, 2006
Section: Arts, Etc.

New York City. New Orleans. Detroit. Seattle. Los Angeles. History has shown that all of these cities have played a role in the development of distinctly American music, with each city offering a breeding ground to culturally magnificent and unique sounds. As time continually marches by, theres one little northwestern city that hopes to join the ranks in the pantheon of American musical birthing grounds: Portland, Oregon. The seemingly inconspicuous city in a relatively un-noteworthy state for pop culture, with the exception of everyones favorite game known as the Oregon Trail, Portland is proving to be a strong enough basin for ingenious musicians in this country. In fact, one of indie rocks most pivotal musicians of the past decade began his musical journey in the middle of a budding Portland music scene;

that musician is the widely beloved Elliott Smith.

The musical martyr known as Elliott Smith came into musical bloom in the early Nineties as part of Portlands Heatmiser, a post-punk group with a pop sensibility. By the last days of Heatmisers existence, Smith had already released two solo efforts that garnered him more interest than he had as a member of the band. It wasnt until 1997 that Smith hit his stride with the release of Either/Or, after which a number of musical spots on Gus Van Sants film Good Will Hunting and an Academy Award nomination thrust Smith into the spotlight. Yet, it wasnt until Smiths devastating suicide in 2003 that his artistic merit was fully realized. Like Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, and practically every artist before who died an untimely death, the unfortunate outcome of one October day in 2003 has done more for Smiths career as a musician than he could ever have done if he had lived another thirty years. With that, Smiths final album, From a Basement on a Hill, was released to great acclaim a year after his death, and Smiths musical prowess is still celebrated today with the release of To: Elliott / From: Portland. The album provides not only a collection of covers from artists in one of Americas most underrated and interesting music scenes to a musical hero, but also offers a letter to the rest of America to look towards Portland to find the next great American sound.

The album kicks off with the a sweet harmonica melody on the Decemberists cover of Clementine. The Decemberists, Portlands current musical claim to fame, offer one of the more interesting, unique, and satisfying covers on the album: frontman Colin Meloys usually irritating vocals are executed with a certain softness that both pays tribute to Smiths emotionally harrowing vocals and offers an interesting parallel to Smiths original track. From the Decemberists calm track, the album spins through the diverse and ambiguous sounds that make up todays incredible Portland music scene: the all too – common stereotypical coffeehouse singer-songwriter musician fills up a number of tracks on the album and offer the best and worst covers on the disc. While Sexton Blakes Rose Parade is, at its core, a rather boring cover, Amelias Between the Bars fills Smiths song with the sweet sensuality that can only come from a woman and would have been perfectly interchangeable with Smiths version in Good Will Hunting. Whereas that popular Smith track received good treatment, others did not;

Crosstides treatment of Angeles is nothing more than an empty brit-pop sound alike and strips the original track of its subtle emotional splendor. On a similar level, Doloreans The Biggest Lie feels like a half-hearted cover that could be heard in any country-loving bar south of Virginia.

Certainly no cover album is perfect;

last years tribute to the Beatles Rubber Soul offered only a couple of interesting covers, and Sun Kil Moons Tiny Cities offered only a handful of listenable Modest Mouse covers. Yet, where those albums failed, To: Elliott manages to succeed solely on the ingenuity of the artists highlighted in Portlands music scene. To Live And Die In LAs Kings Crossing creates a breezy mix of pure pop with a healthy dose of mechanized beats to add more ingenuity to what was originally another Smith tribute to the Beatles musical majesty. Above all, the most inspired, imaginative, and downright unique track on the album comes from an unlikely source;

Lifesavas, an underground hip-hop duo known for their inventive wordplay, steal the album with their cover of Happiness. A unique vision unto itself, Lifesavas have met and surpassed everything needed in a good cover;

a starkly original interpretation of a song without stripping the original of its beauty. If Elliott Smith grew up idolizing Run-DMC and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, his music would probably sound like something along the lines of the sound that Lifesavas present on Happiness.

As history dictates, the ideal of the perfect cover album is still relatively unachievable. Similarly, Portland is barely a blip on the map of cities that birth a definitive American music scene. Finally, as Elliott Smith has gained fans the world over with his dark, poetic, and often touching music, its nearly three years after his passing and he still isnt as widely worshiped as Cobain. Yet, with the release of To: Elliott / From: Portland, history may very well change in its views towards the previous ideals. Chances are, Elliott Smith will probably be hailed on a mythic level before the perfect cover album is ever released.