‘Say Yes! A Tribute to Elliott Smith’ By Various Artists, Reviewed
American Laundromat Records managed to convince several prominent indie artists to cover Elliott Smith and the result is ‘Say Yes! A Tribute to Elliott Smith’, a 15-track album gathering covers by J Mascis, Juliana Hatfield, Yuck, Lou Barlow and Amanda Palmer to only cite a few, which was released a few weeks ago.
I know all these Elliott Smith’s songs very well, they are among the most famous ones the late singer songwriter has written, ‘Between the Bars’, ‘Ballad of Big Nothing’, ‘Waltz #2’, ‘Needle in the Hay’, ‘Say Yes’, ‘Miss Misery’, ‘Angeles’…I have listened to them many times, and I am not always a fan of covers, so I was anxious to listen to the album. It’s nevertheless a compilation done with a lot of respect for the late artist, with a distinctive tone and more or less success for each track. Among fans, a lot has been made of the freedom J Mascis took around ‘Waltz #2’, one of the most beloved Elliott Smith’s song, since it contains the lyrics ‘I’m never gonna know you now, but I’m gonna love you anyhow’ which took another level of significance when the artist died in 2003… is it still a cover or something else? I personally don’t have any problem with this kind of experimentation, considering that, on the other hand, imitating Elliott and trying to reproduce the song as loyally as possible will equally be criticized, because nobody can do better than him to the eyes of many fans.
Each song of the album brings a bit of the artist covering it, to varying degrees, and when the song sounds a bit different it can be good thing, as I don’t care for copycats. Beside J Mascis’ very personal version of ‘Waltz #2’ already mentioned. Waxahatchee’s creepy and slowed down rendition of ‘Angeles’ will bring a new attention to the song, whose original intimate humming is transformed into something else: it becomes menacing and so carries its inner doomness with zombie-vocals and a droning guitar.
Amanda Palmer’s ‘Pictures of Me’ is still close to the original but her deep throat vocals and stabbing keys are an interesting take on the song. So is Jesu/Sun Kil Moon’s take on ‘Condor Ave’, which once again has very little to to do with the original. If Mascis has reimagining a grungy version of ‘Waltz #2’ by even rewriting the lyrics, Jesu/Sun Kil Moon keep the lyrics intact but treat the song like spoken words with a sort of hip hop swagger. But perhaps this is not for everyone.
It’s not surprising that Juliana Hatfield’s version of ‘Needle in the Hay’ was taken from ‘I Saved Latin! A Tribute to Wes Anderson’, its wide-eyed vibe, nervous guitar and cute symphonic arrangements evoke a scene of an Anderson film … Should I remind everyone that the original song was used in Anderson’s ‘The Royal Tennebaums’ during the suicide scene? Suddenly the mix of cuteness, lightness and sadness reinforces all the song’s inner anxiety. Escondido’s ‘Waltz #1’ brings a similar effect, because of the youthful vocals drenched in reverb and the layered depth they bring to the rendition, the band opens the song to all its potentials, a word Elliott would have like or hate.
Julien Baker seems to have the perfect voice to sing ‘Ballad Of Big Nothing’, her version is eerie and kaleidoscopic, with a few subtle alterations at the right places and a croon at the end of the song made to take your breath away
‘No Name #3’ by Caroline Says transforms itself in an angelic hymn-like song, a meditative and serene ballad with an ethereal beauty and it may not be a coincidence if one of the most stunning covers of this album is done by a band with a Velvet-Underground-inspired moniker.
Yuck visibly has a lot of fun to make ‘Bled White’ explode into a full rocking song, but honestly the result is not far away from live versions I have heard, and the same could be said of Tanya Donelly’s ‘Between the Bars’, although it’s well executed with a visible love and respect for the material. So is ‘Division Day’ by Lou Barlow who sings the song with a cavernous voice without anything remarkable added to the song. The rest of the covers fall in the same place, ‘Say Yes’ by William Fitzsimmons is also close to the original, with breathy vocals whispered in the hole of your ear, as the track certainly manages to remind us about the intimacy of the song, whereas Tomo Nakayama laments with harmonies through ‘Miss Misery’ as Adam Franklin during ‘Oh Well, Okay’, with only a slight change at the end. The album concludes with Wild Sun’s ‘Easy Way Out’, also very close to Smith’s original version
The album is as diverse as Elliott Smith’s catalogue, the sound of the 15 songs is all over the place and demonstrates how versatile Smith’s compositions are, and 13 years after his death, his music is equally relevant for a 21 year-old (Julien Baker) or for a 51 year-old (J Mascis). Covering Elliott Smith is a really difficult exercise, since an artist has to find the right balance between staying loyal to the song at the risk of finding nothing new, and totally reinventing the tune and losing a few listeners in the process.
Obviously, the interest around Elliott Smith’s work will continue to grow over the years, as it is always the case when a talented artist dies before he has the time to give everything he had. The album is enjoyable from start to finish with more or less satisfying results, but there’s a sadness running through it, because Elliott Smith is gone of course, but there’s also a beauty to listen to inspired musicians eager to keep his incredible talent alive.
Say Yes! track list:
Between The Bars – Tanya Donelly
Ballad Of Big Nothing – Julien Baker
Pictures Of Me – Amanda Palmer
Waltz #2 – J Mascis
Needle In The Hay – Juliana Hatfield
Bled White – Yuck
Say Yes – William Fitzsimmons
Miss Misery – Tomo Nakayama
Waltz #1 – Escondido
Oh Well, Okay – Adam Franklin
Condor Ave – Jesu/Sun Kil Moon
Angeles – Waxahatchee
Division Day – Lou Barlow
No Name #3 – Caroline Says
Easy Way Out – Wild Sun