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When playing someone else's songs, one can either completely reinterpret it, or stay painstakingly true to the original. Each route requires different kinds of musicianship, and which is more artistically credible is debatable--but if a cover fails to either reinterpret or clone, then what's the point?

To: Elliott From: Portland, a compilation/tribute album to the late Elliott Smith, has many what's-the-point? covers, but also several artistically executed ones. The Decemberists' arrangement of "Clementine" is minimized even more than the original (it's possible!), making the song sound more like traditional folk--in other words, like a Decemberists song. The Helio Sequence managed to recreate "Satellite" exactly like the original. Dolorean turns the "The Biggest Lie" into a country song with shuffling drums, and it works. The most inspired cover on the record is the hip-hop version of "Happiness," by Lifesavas; the rapping deviates from the original lyrics but maintains the same overall feeling, making the song a true reinterpretation.

The Thermals' version of "Ballad of Big Nothing" attempts to stay true to the original, and fails (or maybe I just can't stand singer Kathy Foster's voice), as does To Live and Die in L.A.'s version of "King's Crossing." The versions of "Rose Parade" and "I Didn't Understand" are equally boring, and Smith's friend Sean Croghan ends the record with a messy, hacked rendering of the previously unreleased "High Times." To: Elliott From: Portland, subsequently, is as unstable as Smith's inner life seemed to be--the point was to pay tribute to his consistently good music, not his inconsistent emotional state.

More by Annie Holub

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