Wendy Redfern/Redferns

The Right Way To Cover Elliott Smith

Women subvert comparisons on a new tribute album to the late songwriter

In the spring of 2014, the surviving members of Nirvana took the stage in New York’s Barclays Center. The band had just been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and were about to perform four songs. But the obvious absence of their late frontman, Kurt Cobain, raised questions that initially seemed insuperable: Who would sing? Who could sing with Nirvana? Who could replace him?

There’s an immense difficulty implicit in covering any famous artist’s works, as covers spur comparisons with the original vocalist and risk angering fans of the original material. Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic sidestepped this trap by calling four female vocalists to the stage at the Hall of Fame ceremony. Sure, some die-hard fans might have rejected Lorde’s “All Apologies” or St. Vincent’s “Lithium,” but whether or not they liked the covers, there’s one thing they had more difficulty saying to these women than they would have to a man singing the same songs: “Stop pretending to be Kurt.”

Of course, not all gender-swapped covers can be as successful and imaginative as those. But a similar principle applies to the work of the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, as the new covers album Say Yes! A Tribute to Elliott Smith demonstrates. Out of 15 contributors, the female vocalists are nearly always most apt at conveying Smith’s meaning while avoiding unfortunate comparisons to his voice and persona.

Smith, who died 13 years ago today, became one of the most beloved singer-songwriters of the 1990s by pairing complex fingerpicking and high, whispery vocals with uniquely melancholic melodies and piercingly direct lyrics. Listeners formed intimate connections with his work, which is why they’re still listening to albums like 1997’s Either/Or nearly two decades later.

Say Yes!, which features Amanda Palmer, Yuck, Waxahatchee, J Mascis, and other indie-leaning artists ranging from well-known to more obscure, presents the challenge of covering songs that these fans know religiously. They must cover without copying, innovate without ruining or displeasing, and maintain the spirit and meaning of irreplaceable works.

J Mascis’s attempt at covering 1998’s “Waltz #2 (XO)” fails by forgetting the crucial importance of Smith’s lyrics, and how intensely they connect with Smith’s fanbase. Mascis revises all but two lines, discarding iconic lyrics like “I’m never going to know you now / But I’m going to love you anyhow” — a line so renowned that it’s on a memorial plaque hung in Smith’s former high school — in favor of a new song that merely quotes Smith’s chorus. Similarly, the Jesu/Sun Kil Moon cover of “Condor Ave.” — whose original was a sentimental highlight on Smith’s 1994 debut, Roman Candle — seems to forget the importance of Smith’s emotional realness. Their “Condor Ave.” renders the song so electronic and dry that Smith’s empathic touch, transmitted through instrumentation and vocal vulnerability as much as his lyrics, all but disappears.

These missteps contrast with the album’s standout innovators, including Palmer, Julien Baker, and Caroline Says (a.k.a. Caroline Sallee) — all of whom manage to bring their personal styles to Smith’s music, giving it new life without rendering it unrecognizable. Palmer’s gorgeous cover of 1997’s “Pictures of Me” could have hailed straight from her own Who Killed Amanda Palmer or the work of The Dresden Dolls, but the song is immediately recognizable as a loving homage to Smith; she matches his weary tone in her own distinctly husky voice, maintains his chords and vocal line, and amps up his complaints about fame with her trademark not-quite-staccato piano. The song is clearly Smith’s and hers, a collaboration across the decades.

Baker’s “Ballad of Big Nothing” slows down the original, going for something sparser than Smith’s near-pop approach; her trademark grit and gentle reverb encapsulate his desperate lyrics in her own sound, but the reduced speed marks this version as her own. Caroline Says — a comparatively unknown artist compared to the others, with music primarily residing on Bandcamp — gives Roman Candle’s “No Name #3” an eerie spin, with electric guitars and layered vocals that seem aware of Smith’s original melody and lyrical implication, but open to reinterpretation. All three of these artists stay true to the feelings of longing and loss that remained the single most important element of Smith’s work across the years.

The male covers on the album have a more difficult time, as they draw strong, inescapable parallels with Smith himself. Although William Fitzsimmons’s cover of Either/Or’s love song “Say Yes” is sweetly simple, there’s something missing from his slow, whispered interpretation. Fitzsimmons maintains Smith’s attitude and slightly alters his strum-and-picked patterns in favor of full fingerpicking, but it’s ultimately no different from a well-executed YouTube cover — a competent echo of a singular original. Around every lyrical corner lurk the same questions: Why didn’t you sing that part like Elliott did? You barely changed it; are you trying to sound just like him? No one can sound like him.

The female advantage over male-sung covers isn’t true for all women, of course. Tanya Donelly’s “Between the Bars” is a tinny sight-reading of the sheet music, and Juliana Hatfield’s “Needle in the Hay” — the only cover that wasn’t created for Say Yes! and was originally created for Wes Anderson tribute album I Saved Latin! — comes off as accurate but uninspired and uninventive. These artists cannot escape comparison with Smith, either, because they do nothing original with his material. The line between boring imitation (covers sung up an octave, accompanied by a previously unemployed and out-of-place instrument) and complete bastardization is finer than it may appear.

The best covers of iconic pieces by famous artists — from Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” (originally sung by Otis Redding) to Kesha’s recent cover of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” — work because of the cover artist’s ability to maintain the sensibilities of the music they’re approaching and then further its impact by impressing a new interpretation. This might sound simple, but it’s harder than it looks. Elliott Smith can no longer perform his songs, but free from comparison, women who sing his music and do so while minding their own musical propensities can breathe new, respectful life into beloved works that have otherwise long gone quiet.