The Art of a Cover Song & Elliott Smith

Elliott Smith in Concert, 1998We’ve all been to bar and heard live music from a band in the background. Most of the time you’ll hear these bands play cover songs and while some are very impressive. Over the last few months, I’ve been experimenting with a lot of new music, mostly lo-fi, indie rock. It was there that I discovered Elliott Smith.While I had heard a little bit of his stuff before and thought it appealing, I had never explored his catalogue and immersed myself in it to hear it, feel it and find the influences or inspiration for the music.

My musical taste for Smith has come in three waves since I began listening to him and each time I have found something new and exciting in it.

Before I even go into his music, one of the first things I liked about him already was that he grew up in Portland, having gone to Lincoln High School in Southwest Portland. I love me some Portland. In fact, the school hung a plaque in his memoriam in 2006. The line “I’m never gonna know you now, but I’m gonna love you anyhow” is from his song “Waltz #2”.

I found a couple of albums of Smith’s a few month’s ago and became enthralled with them. I listened to them both on repeat while on a road trip to Cleveland and during my daily driving in town and was enamored with it all. It was hard to say which album I liked better in “Either/Or” or “Figure 8”, the final release before his death in 2003.

I won’t delve too much into his musical talents but I really believe that if he were alive today, that at some point he might have crossed over into classical composing a la Frank Zappa. It’s a stretch but listen to this track and tell me that the guy did not have an ear for composition. Close your eyes, listen carefully and add layers of an orchestra in your head to the music. Hear the string ensemble and the woodwinds in the opening and closing moments of the song.

After listening to Smith’s studio albums, the second go-round was in the bootlegs of his live performances, which were nearly as golden. Though his music followed the same genre as well, many of these performances are strictly acoustic, with some electric sprinkled in, and are very rich in sound from his guitar and his voice spilling his soul. If an artist can sound as good, or even better live than in a studio, that’s the sign of something special to my ears.

Scouring for live performances on internet, I saw that Smith covered a lot of his influencers during shows, ranging from The Beatles to Willie Nelson to Oasis. I had heard a few of these during phase two (live performances) of my discovery of Smith and really liked his cover of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon”. I partially enjoyed his cover because it is a favorite song of mine, but also because he kept the integrity of the song intact during the performance.

However two weeks ago in Miami, while relaxing in my hotel room before our group left for the Orange Bowl press box, I searched YouTube to listen to Ray Davis performance of “Waterloo Sunset” (also the subject of my first blog post) from the Olympic Closing ceremonies. After entering my search, the suggested videos on YouTube also showed “Elliott Smith – Waterloo Sunset”.

I decided to forgo the Davies version of the song and listen to Smith’s instead. As I laid down on my bed in my suite and tie with my headphones, I decided to listen to the Elliiott Smith version of Waterloo Sunset and was blown away by it. I got goosebumps and chills listening to it. When I returned to DeKalb, I decided to pursue the rest of his catalogue of covers.

I discovered a vast a collection of his live covers and was impressed by a lot of them. As I said before, keeping the integrity of a cover song is an important part of covering song. I think one of the best cover artists around today is Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder, not only on stage, but also commercially.

Listening to Smith cover these songs and classics is really a joy to lovers of music, he really does a good job with them. Along with keeping the sound the same, Smith also makes it his own in a subtle way that is not overpowering on many of the tracks.

The most radical transition I’ve found is in Oasis’ “Supersonic”. It hits really hard with the electric guitar, a sound that made Oasis an international sensation. Now compare it to Smith’s acoustic version. It’s gold.

It’s been an awesome two weeks going through these covers and listening to their  predecessors as well. Not so much comparing, but just listening. It’s also led me to a new artist discoveries as well. Here’s a list of covers by Elliott Smith as recorded from his performances.

As I’ve tried to learn about Smith as much as I could over the months, I read somewhere that he liked to hang on to most of his writings and compositions so he could try and master them. I’m guessing that also meant his recordings.

For that, there are bootleg songs, such as these performances, and we are now blessed to have these recordings. Listen for yourself and become a fan of what he created in his short time on this Earth.

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2 thoughts on “The Art of a Cover Song & Elliott Smith

  1. He did have an ear for composition. Did I hear a smidgen of an Elton John song in there? Possibly, because in music, there are only so many notes. Thank you for sharing and introducing!

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