We never deserved Elliott Smith. The Portland-via-Nebraska musician redefined what it meant to be a singer-songwriter, what it meant to write folk songs, what a human was capable of doing with an acoustic guitar in hand — all before the nation at large could even begin to understand the intricacies of his music. As recent tales surface, from oral histories to documentaries, that artistry becomes illuminated once more and, in turn, passed on to a new generation. How could it not be shared? Smith wrote music that tore through bizarre chords and piano interludes troubled with worries, rattled with self-consciousness, and, despite all of that, full of love — for the world and those he met in it.
Needless to say, that’s a lot of complication rolled into a genre naively titled “folk.” And so, covering Elliott Smith is tricky. His songs are those of the human heart, of it breaking and shaking and walking with numbness. Revamping what’s already perfect is difficult, if not impossible. So how do you change it? The artists on Say Yes! A Tribute to Elliott Smith grapple with that question one by one.
Arguably the best way to pay tribute to Smith is to milk those emotions and simmer in them yourself, absorbing every feeling until Smith’s feelings become your own. It’s a mix of pain and beauty, a balance Smith pulled off with unbelievable skill, and one that can be captured if given in to. Escondido falls backwards into “Waltz #1” in a dreamy, cushioned, downright moving take that revives the tone Smith captured on the 1998 original. Ironically enough, it’s Lou Barlow who captures Elliott Smith’s smile, the flash of contentedness he offered up only occasionally, on “Division Day”. The compilation’s most rewarding covers come from gut-wrenching performances of “Ballad of Big Nothing” and “No Name #3” by Julien Baker and Caroline Says, respectively. Both capture his loneliness, and Baker in particular opts for doing so through spaciousness, ringing the hollowness of his heart by adding massive reverb. Caroline Says, however, lays down the best cover on the whole album. “No Name #3” was written as an intimate, revealing number back in 1994 for Roman Candle. In the hands of the Austin, TX, group, it flips into a moment of nostalgia, a gentle stroke of the scalp before bedtime, the serene song playing over the radio as you drive through a city at three in the morning. Caroline Says plunge into the impossibly intricate emotions of Elliott Smith in their cover and then soften the entire thing so that it sounds like it was simple.
Elliott Smith’s genius hides in his uncommon tuning and exhausting but seemingly simple chords. To highlight that, a handful of artists take the other route: reinventing their cover. Whether that means full-on rock (Yuck’s “Bled White”) or deadpan electronics (Jesu & Sun Kil Moon’s version of “Condor Ave”), Say Yes has it covered. A few artists opt for subtle twists, though they don’t always pay off — Juliana Hatfield sews a few lines of shrill synth into “Needle In the Hay”, making for a genuine, but adolescent, cover. However, “Waltz #2” bodychecks listeners in a new way thanks to J Mascis and his forever distorted amps, washing over the original song with gnarled guitars and the bitter pain they convey.
Then comes the inevitable: the safe plays, the covers that keep their eyes glued to the sheet music. Elliott Smith’s songs may be perfect as is, but failing to inject them with style or emotion does little to justify why you should listen to the cover instead of the original. Adam Franklin’s “Oh Well, Okay” fades from vanilla to total opacity, lacking any memorable tint. Wild Sun force a gentle vocal line to hold hands with isolated acoustic guitar for “Easy Way Out”, softening the magic of Smith’s chord progression in favor of ballad delivery akin to a boy performing at a high school’s Thursday night coffeehouse. Even Waxahatchee — who sometimes captures the mood during “Angeles” — gets lost in her own isolation, Katie Crutchfield’s feet getting stuck in a muddy cover of well-intentioned but too-dreary guitar effects. Boring covers slow down what could have been a compilation album of heavy hitters. If you’re going to quote the title track, then make sure it’s phenomenal. William Fitzsimmons takes “Say Yes” and turns it into a snoozy rendition with little heart to hug.
In a way, that fulfill-or-falter conundrum of Say Yes illuminates the skill of Elliott Smith. Straightforward takes don’t need to wreck the gut: Amanda Palmer drops her voice for “Pictures of Me”; Tanya Donelly brings a faint eeriness to “Between the Bars”; and Tomo Nakayama remains faithful to “Miss Misery”, complete with sighing backing vocals and sloppy drums, but allows his voice to carry the tune, bringing it back to life in a way that recalls both its Good Will Hunting fame and its new life in the years following. It’s possible Smith’s footsteps are so unique that wowing listeners with your own version can only be done if it’s felt. If that means filtering through crunchy percussion or your own heartbreak, then so be it.
Say Yes is an ode to the man who made the world feel. If all the covers were as deeply felt as Caroline Says or Julien Baker’s, Say Yes would leap from a covers album to a tried and true tribute, a record that could bring an artist back to life, if only for an hour. If listeners are looking for that, well, then just listen to Elliott Smith’s originals.
Essential Tracks: “No Name #3”, “Waltz #2”, and “Ballad of Big Nothing”