Elliott Smith had such a distinctive voice and style that sometimes the fullness of his songcraft was hard to hear beneath all the whispers and finger-picking. Smith was frequently criticized for recording endless variations of the same tremulous tune, copied in part from The Beatles' "Mother Nature's Son." A project like the new tribute album To: Elliott From: Portland has been badly needed, to show how elastic Smith's words and melodies could be when approached from different directions.
For the most part, To: Elliott succeeds at proving the case. The compilation opens with The Decemberists turning "Clementine" into one of their typical archaic folk dirges, and though the ghost of Smith's original floats above the track, there's no denying that the body is wholly new. Nor would anyone mistake The Thermals' rowdy indie-pop version of "Ballad Of Big Nothing" or Eric Matthews' cavernous, heavily orchestrated "Needle In The Hay" as belonging to anyone but the people performing them.
But perhaps because the compilers stuck with musicians from Smith's hometown, the set isn't as varied as it could be. Too many artists do their best Elliott Smith impression, and though there's nothing inherently wrong with, for example, The Helio Sequence's fairly reverent take on "Satellite," or Swords' pillowed "I Didn't Understand," there also isn't much that makes listening to them significantly different from listening to Smith's original recordings. Really, the best appropriation of Smith's sound on To: Elliott comes at the end, when Smith's good friend Sean Croghan digs up the unreleased song "High Times" and performs it with a fragility and tremor that's all tribute, no rehash.