A cursory review of Say Yes! A Tribute to Elliott Smith

Elliott Smith is a tough act to follow. That gossamer voice. The delicate fingerpicking. His wounds on full display, raw on early records, then wrapped up in gauzy, elaborate arrangements a la George Harrison in later years. There are few musicians out there who match Smithâ’s ability to find beauty and comfort â” instead of melodrama â” in suffering.

Of course, that doesnâ’t stop anyone from trying. Say Yes! A Tribute to Elliott Smith, a compilation of Elliott Smith covers released in March of this year, boasts more than a few mediocre versions of cherished Smith songs, made bland by reducing the songwriter to the Sad Guy cartoon most people know best. Most of the interpretations here donâ’t offer much revelation, only dull reworks of his now-classic catalog.

 

Julien Baker â” “Ballad of Big Nothing”

Baker is the youngest artist featured here at 21, and was only 8-years-old when Smith died, but her cover here is one of the best. Her voice is smoother, more soulful that Smithâ’s sometimes accusatory (especially on this number) dead-pan, but her airy composition gives the song some room to breathe, revealing the beauty and the horror under Smithâ’s clenched delivery.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nYFp-wqQqTw

 

Yuck â” “Bled White”

Meh.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeEK_bA0o90

 

Jesu/Sun Kil Moon – “Condor Ave.”

Former Red House Painter Mark Kozelek mumbles poetically over a shuffling electronic pulse, eschewing Smithâ’s original melody in favor of a monotonous delivery. Listeners will wait for the song to pick up some steam, only to discover it never does.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AAOVgrJGxX0

 

Waxahatchee – “Angeles”

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Cool. Sinister. Unsettling. Slowed down to a crawl and ready to render you catatonic.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGu_hhQmHRU

 

J Mascis â” “Waltz #2”

Though this is largely a vehicle for Mascisâ’ own work (or at least an extension of it), the roiling guitars and sad-sack vocals work beautifully in Smithâ’s favor. Mascis renders the song nearly unrecognizable, cutting some of Smithâ’s most well-known lyrics (“Iâ’m never gonna know you know/but Iâ’m gonna love you anyhow”) and replacing them with the songâ’s original bridge: “Iâ’m tired, Iâ’m tired,” he repeats, sounding every bit as exhausted as he claims to be. It gets my vote for best cover on Say Yes!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SjML604EDEI

 

Lou Barlow – “Division Day”

The former Sebadoh front man covers a Smith B-side, which sounds like a put-down until you remember that Smithâ’s B-sides where almost universally great, a product of his consistent recording practices. Anyway, Barlowâ’s cover of “Division Day” is subtle, simple, complete with soft, unaffected vocals. Those ‘90s alternative rock heroes really get what Smith was all about.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKGA45NY3DM

 

Tanya Donelly â” “Between the Bars”

Boring. Precious. Is it over yet?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wkk5S_XwVaQ

 

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