Suicidal Scottish Cowboys
Portland’s tribute to Elliot Smith; a postcard from Glasgow’s pop prodigy; and a pistol-packin’ pit stop in Mesquite, Tex.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Portland’s music scene is laced with virtuoso musicians, a few of whom actually do Smith’s songwriting justice. On the first track, for instance, the Decemberists deliver a harmonica-drenched cover of “Clementine” that’s as sad and haunting as the first time you ever heard it, followed by a halo-ringed incarnation of “Satellite” by Sub Pop Records’ Helio Sequence. The Thermals, also on Sub Pop, follow suit with a cover of “Ballad of Big Nothing,” plumped up by Kathy Foster’s saucy, devil-may-care vocals.
A few of the artists were personally connected with Smith. We Are Telephone’s Paulie Pulvirenti sat in on drums during Smith’s XO tour, and another band member, vocalist/keyboardist Eric Hedford, went to high school with Smith, who recorded an album in Hedford’s parents’ basement. Friend and roommate Sean Croghan performs one of Smith’s previously unreleased songs, “High Times,” an anxious stroll through some of Portland’s more darkly-lit streets.
Other contributors became involved with the To: Elliot project by way of from-a-distance admiration. They don’t all make logical sense—most noticeably, Lifesava’s rap version of “Happiness” and To Live & Die in L.A.’s popped-out version of “King’s Crossing”—but somehow, Smith’s velveteen-rabbit songwriting holds up to the love-fueled beating. Smith’s songwriting was, after all, threadbare to begin with. That’s its beauty.
Belle and Sebastian
The record works like a musical transcription of a couple of record-store workers discussing pre-’80s pop music over a bottle of wine. The discussion is light and entertaining, melding a few key insights with a list of successful genres ranging from psychedelic to glam. The feel of the album, more soulful than the band’s last outing, Dear Catastrophe Waitress , maintains a consistent groove, laid out by tasteful drumming tempered with shakers and tambourines. The songs reveal their hooks and melodies in such a fluid and organic way that the complexity of the instrumentation and arrangements remains hidden.
The vocal melodies feel just as effortless as the arrangements that back them up. The lead and backing vocals sit comfortably atop the band, leaving nothing buried. Lyrically, they focus on personal interactions, from intimate to playful, told through a kind of narrative character study with occasional input from and about the writer.
The craftsmanship and execution of balancing the long list of keyboards, guitars, horns and whatever else they can find to use has always been a trademark of Belle and Sebastian, and with The Life Pursuit the band continues to impress. There’s a lot of information crammed into this 13-song album, and yet nowhere does the record feel cramped. You simply continue to discover new favorite moments.
Like a lower-fi Drive-by-Truckers with about two fewer shots of whiskey in ‘em, the Foxymorons achieve an honest Southern feel, rich and deep as molasses, which works well as a sticky-sweet puddle that they sop up with plucky guitar melodies and hauntingly self-aware lyrics. It’s a little bit lonesome in the right places, but doesn’t take itself so seriously as to strike silly Ween-worthy song titles like “The Lazy Librarian’s Son” and “Terror on the Tarmac.”
James and Lewis are best when they harmonize, like on the rejection sob story, “Pistol by Your Side,” and the following track, “Everything Changes,” with its anthemic guitar layering and lyrical nostalgia that takes you back to the skate-rink or the front porch where you had your first breakup. The title track even blares into full-on badass guitar mode, while staying clean enough to keep the lyrics bobbing above the dusty haze of smoke-congested barroom clatter.