by Brian Baker
Remembering Elliott Smith and Jason Molina as they get the full-album tribute treatment on a pair of recent releases
Tribute albums are typically divided into three categories. They’re either a) bankable artists covering high profile subjects (or, infrequently, famously known cult figures); b) cool/respected artists covering cool/respected artists; or c) some weird hybrid of the first two.
Two recently released tributes fall squarely in the second category, with Avett Brothers frontman Seth Avett and rising Americana/Rock vocalist Jessica Lea Mayfield taking a quietly beautiful stroll through a sampling of Elliott Smith's exquisite catalog on Sing Elliott Smith, and Frames frontman and solo artist in his own right Glen Hansard honoring his great hero and friend Jason Molina on It Was Triumph We Once Proposed: Songs of Jason Molina, which was available last month.
There are odd connections between the two projects. In the general point of interest sense, both are posthumous tributes. Smith died in 2003, apparently by his own hand, and Molina succumbed in 2013 after a long battle with alcoholism. And on a more personal level, by the sheerest of coincidences, I've interviewed both of the subjects of these two tributes.
Back in 2000, I spoke with Smith while he was still touring on Figure 8, which had come out earlier that year. And in 2003, I was assigned a feature on Songs: Ohia, fronted and braintrusted by Molina, who had just finished an album he titled The Magnolia Electric Co., which marked the end of Songs: Ohia and the shift to the band named after his new album. Both were fascinating and heartfelt conversations with artists who were amazingly self aware but not at all self absorbed, quietly brilliant songwriters who had an almost pathological need to extract their musical impulses from the dark well of their ultimately troubled souls.
Hansard — who came to prominence as the voice, guitarist and primary songwriter for Irish Rock band The Frames before establishing a side project (Swell Season) and solo career and hitting semi-big with the movie Once and his soundtrack, featuring the Academy Award-winning hit "Falling Slowly" — was so inspired by Molina's deeply emotional and confessional songcraft that the first fan letter he ever sent to a fellow artist was to Molina. Back in 2005, two years after I'd interviewed Molina, I had the rare opportunity to witness the pair's personal and professional bond firsthand.
At my second South by Southwest experience, I followed former The Onion music editor Stephen Thompson to see a Frames appearance at one of Austin's innumerable daytime parties. Stephen was a huge Frames fan and the band knew him well; he had done enough to help expose the band to American audiences that they thanked him in the liner notes to Burn the Maps.
When we arrived at the venue, the band members were wandering through the crowd just prior to their set and Stephen made a beeline for them. He introduced me to The Frames, but there was a dark, diminutive and somewhat familiar presence in the circle who was clearly with the band but not as a member. Glen Hansard spoke up, in his pudding thick Irish brogue, and said, "This is Jason Molina."
I shook his hand and reminded him of our phone conversation and the Rockpile feature two years previous. He greeted me warmly and we talked about what we'd seen at the festival to that point and what we hoped to see going forward. We spent a good 10 minutes in this convivial manner, right up until The Frames took the stage and were announced. After that, his unwavering focus was on the band; he watched and listened as though he was occupying the front pew in church during a sermon he knew for an absolute fact would change his life for the better. He stood in rapt attention, soaking in every word, every note and every nuance and with good reason — The Frames were a mesmerizing live force back then.
At the set's conclusion, Molina immediately swiveled toward me and we exchanged jaw-dropped exclamations of disbelief. Within a few minutes, Hansard made his way to Molina's side and the two began critiquing the performance, Hansard pointing out the flaws and Molina categorically dismissing them. I laughingly thought to myself as I headed to the door and the next party, I'll bet their roles will be diametrically reversed when Magnolia Electric Co., the band that Songs: Ohia had morphed into, plays later this week and Hansard is the fan in the front row. It reminded me of something Molina had said regarding the fact that he was already thinking past the album he had just finished.
"I can do better," he said without hesitation. "My next one, I'm already sweating it. Since the day I walked out of the studio, I've been working on the next one. I don't feel like this one failed, but I'm still looking for the better one."
I thought about Hansard's face as it must have looked while he watched Molina's appearance in Austin, Texas, a decade ago, and imagined the sadder but equally beatific visage he must have exhibited in the studio as he was translating the five tracks that comprise It Was Triumph We Once Proposed. This brief and beautifully executed EP serves a similar purpose as Hansard's distant but never forgotten fan letter, as he pays loving tribute to his long personal friendship with Molina and to the work that first illuminated his immense talents to the world.
Hansard assembled a group of longtime Songs: Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co. collaborators/friends to record a heartbreaking quintet of Molina compositions, all Songs: Ohia tracks and all lending themselves perfectly to Hansard's passionate and sensitively wrought translation. Molina often worked at the creative intersection of Leonard Cohen and Neil Young, and Hansard taps into that shivery vibe with a true fan's boundless devotion and a true friend's immeasurable grief. On the one-two punch of the powerfully poignant "Being in Love" and the achingly beautiful "Hold On, Magnolia," Hansard illuminates the raw, wrenching wisdom of lines like, ”We are proof that the heart is a risky fuel to burn," and the prescient "You might be holding the last light I see before the dark finally gets ahold of me." And just like Molina's life and amazing musical output, Hansard's It Was Triumph We Once Proposed is both immensely satisfying and far too short.
The other contender for Most Amazing and Deserved Tribute of the Year is Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield's Sing Elliott Smith, a (relatively) spare and loving bow to one of this generation's most insightful and contemplative songwriters. After his shredding turn with Portland’s Heatmiser, Smith turned down the volume for his home-recorded solo debut, Roman Candle, which was followed by his equally nuanced eponymous sophomore album and then the jewel in his crown, 1998's Either/Or, which director Gus Van Zant cherry-picked for his soundtrack to his masterpiece Good Will Hunting. Smith scored an Academy Award nomination for his song "Miss Misery," and the success of the soundtrack and his almost uncomfortably vulnerable performance at the Oscars vaulted him into a spotlight that he never actively pursued.
By the time of our 2000 interview, Smith had managed to come to uneasy terms with the maelstrom of fame that resulted from Good Will Hunting and Either/Or's tangential success. It had required him to think about his work in pedestrian ways, to explain it in a fashion that would be understandable to people with little understanding.
But through it all, Smith remained true to his own process, trusting that, regardless of outside opinions, expectations or interests, he continued to create the kind of music he wanted to hear in the manner that he wanted to create it. And he knew that, no matter how much anyone involved in his career wanted him to pull Either/Or 2 out of his magician's hat, the only thing that would truly satisfy his artistic nature would be to create what came out of him organically, without being conjured or forced.
"I don't think it was on my mind," Smith said about making the Beatlesque Figure 8 in the wake of major-label debut XO, Either/Or and Good Will Hunting. "I was just making up songs the way I always do. I mean, it was never going to sell millions of copies, so there wasn't that kind of pressure."
That may well be why Sing Elliott Smith is so incredibly successful as a tribute. Smith's songbook is among the most revered in contemporary music and the acclaim that has been lavished on Avett and Mayfield since their debuts is both effusive and deserved. Given all that, there's little risk involved at any level of this project.
The blending of the two principals' voices was the only unknown and that particular question mark is definitely straightened into a boldface exclamation point with Avett and Mayfield's brilliant opening duet on Either/Or's "Between the Bars." Avett's stylistic path from Punk provocateur to rootsy Americana troubadour to genre melding alchemist is a pretty fair match to Smith's own journey, and Mayfield's weary optimism lines up well with Smith's gloomy hopefulness. Together, Avett and Mayfield are the perfect translators for Smith's hushed (and not so hushed) odes to the anguish and bittersweet joy of love and modern life and they coalesce almost effortlessly on brilliant lines like, "Nothing's gonna drag me down/To a death that's not worth cheating."
It's moments like that one from "Baby Britain" that make Sing Elliott Smith resonate so clearly from start to finish. It's particularly poignant when Mayfield takes the lead on "A Fond Farewell" — from the album Smith was working on at the time of his death, released posthumously as From a Basement on the Hill — and she sings words that seem so startlingly prescient coming so close to Smith's sad end; "A little less than a happy heart/A little less than a suicide/The only thing that you really tried/This is not my life, it's just a fond farewell to a friend/It's not what I'm like, it's just a fond farewell to a friend/Who couldn't get things right."
Avett and Mayfield offer a broad core sample of Smith's amazing catalog (only 1995's self-titled sophomore album isn't represented), and the pair's affinity for and love of their subject's work is evident in every trembling note and emotional lyric. At almost 37 minutes, Sing Elliott Smith is a full album but it feels impossibly short and is over well before the listener is ready for it to be done. If ever there was a release that warranted the often-dreaded subtitle of Volume 2, it would be Sing Elliott Smith.
It seems only proper that the final words in this piece should be reserved for the subjects of these two tributes. First, an interesting comment from Jason Molina about his songwriting process led to a philosophical statement about his musical belief system.
"I almost write the music at the same time I'm trying to think of who could best put this onto tape, and that goes right down to the engineer," he noted. "Maybe it's a cowardly way to work because I don't take all of the burden onto myself, but ego should never be part of the music."
And finally, Elliott Smith addressed the media's tendency to label him as "melancholy," which morphed into an explanation of the simple reality that labels have tried to manipulate and contradict throughout their long and checkered histories.
"As soon as someone calls you a songwriter, you automatically get the melancholy tag," Smith admitted. “Also, 'Why aren't you playing dance music?' and 'Why are your songs so sad?' They're just clichés. If it wasn't those, it would be different ones. You can't always expect people to relate. There are all kinds of people, and some people understand each other and some people don't. NSYNC sells nine million records, so there's nine million people that can relate, and I'm not one of them. So even if you sell millions and millions of albums, there's always going to be somebody who doesn't get it. If you want to be creative and do what you do, it's going to be kind of idiosyncratic."
Long live the idiosyncratic artist, and the memories of those who left us way before their creative dreams were fulfilled.
by Mike Breen
An overview and sampling of the adventurous sounds you'll hear at this weekend's MusicNOW festival
Tonight marks the kick-off of MusicNOW, an adventurous
weekend of music that was started in 2006 by Cincinnati native and
guitarist for successful Indie Rock band The National, Bryce Dessner. The festival's
mission is "to present the best in contemporary music; to offer artists'
an opportunity to take risks; to commission new work."
That's a fair but lacking description of the festival, but
only because the programming isn't bounded by much other than the
desire to explore. MusicNOW has showcased numerous flavors of World
music, often new avant Chamber/Classical works, a "who's who" of the top
names in "Indie" music (Sufjan Stevens, St. Vincent, The National, Bon
Iver, Andrew Bird, Grizzly Bear), a few legends (Philip Glass, Kronos
Quartet) and newer and/or more obscure artists, meshing together to
offer Cincinnati music fans (and the many who come in from out of town) a
truly unique musical experience. Sold out audiences have seen
one-off performances and collaborations, including commissioned
works and world premieres.
Below is a sampling of some of the artists featured this
weekend — though with MusicNOW's encouragement of experimentalism, take
it as merely a surface introduction. The artists will more likely go
beyond any pigeonhole you can come up with, which is the best thing
• Tonight's kick-off is headlined by Anti- recording
artists Tinariwen, a Malian ensemble whose creative North African sounds
resulted in a Grammy in 2012 for its fifth album, Tassili. Read
CityBeat's interview with Tinariwen founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib (via
translated email exchange) here.
Here's the official video for Tassili track "Iswegh Attay" (with translation!):
• Arcade Fire member Richard Reed Parry has been a part of
several MusicNOW festivals, composing commissioned works and playing
with bands like Little Scream and Bell Orchestre. This year, Reed
Parry will perform the songs of his Indie Folk project, Quiet River of
Dust. The project made it's live debut at the National-curated All
Tomorrow's Parties fest in the U.K. late last year (where Reed Parry
performed three very different sets) and a recording is presently in the
works. A review from the music blog Let's Get Cynical described it as
"a quirky and engaging performance – the first song I hear is about a
boy who gets lost at sea and turns into a fish, if you want some sort of
indication of what we’re working with. The fact that this is the trio’s
first ever show also highlights ATP as the kind of festival where you
get to see things you don’t get anywhere else." Kinda like MusicNOW.
• Rounding out tonight's opener is Buse and Gase, the
Brooklyn duo of Arone Dyer and Aron Sanchez, who make trippy avant grade
music on various handmade instruments. The group name actually comes
from two of those instruments — the "buke" is described as a "six-string
baritone ukulele" and the "gase" is a guitar/bass guitar combo.
Here's Buse and Gase's official clip for the tune "General Dome."
• Saturday's headliner is MusicNOW 2013's most known
performer, Glen Hansard. The Irish singer/songwriter began catching
attention as a member of the group The Frames, then broke out on his own
and won an Academy Award for "Best Original Song" in 2008 for "Falling
Slowly" from the film Once, in which he also starred. Hansard's first
solo album, Rhythm and Repose, was released last summer on the Anti-
label (album bonus track "Come Away to the Water" was, oddly enough,
covered by Maroon 5 and Rozzi Crane on the soundtrack to the blockbuster
film The Hunger Games).
Here's the video for "High Hope" off of Hansard's solo debut.
• Saturday will also feature the performance of new works
composed by Dessner, Reed Parry and Serbian composer Aleksanda Vreblov.
The new pieces will be performed by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, which has
collaborated with everyone from the New York Philharmonic and Cincinnati native (and Jazz piano
master) Fred Hersch to Lou Reed,
Barbara Streisand and Talib Kweli. The organization works often with composers on new
Here's a clip of Dessner working with the Chorus on the piece "Tell the Way" in 2011.
The Chorus will be joined by young string ensemble The
Ariel Quartet, which formed in Israel and moved to the States in 2004.
Last year, the group was named "quartet-in-residence" at the University
of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. The quartet has won
numerous international awards for its work and has performed all over
the world. Also lending a hand with the new works is Shara Worden of
MusicNOW vets My Brightest Diamond.
Below is a clip of the Ariel Quartet performing Mozart.
• Last year, music now featured pioneering composer Philip
Glass. This year, Steve Reich plays the role of "legend" on
the bill. The Guardian's Andrew Clements once wrote that "There's just a
handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered
the direction of musical history. Steve Reich is one of them," while
many others consider Reich one of the world's greatest living composers.
Reich's experiments have been fearless and creatively fruitful and
influential, be it his early work with tape loops or his interactive
"Clapping Music," a 1972 piece performed entirely with handclaps.
Reich will join Sō Percussion for a performance of that piece and more, including a new commission from Daníel Bjarnason (the annual Esme Kenney Commission, named for a young student from School for Creative and Performing Arts student who was murdered in 2009).
The Brooklyn-based modern percussion group (featuring Eric Beach, Josh
Quillen, Adam Sliwinski and Jason Treuting) formed about a decade ago
around the collective influence of pioneering NeoClassical
experimentalists like Reich, John Cage, Kronos Quartet and others. Sō
has commissioned works from numerous composers and has also been acclaimed
for its own compositions. Outside of the modern Classical world, the
ensemble has collaborated with artists like Medeski, Martin and Wood,
Matmos and Dan Deacon.
Here's a cool mini-documentary from PitchforkTV about Reich and featuring Sō Percussion.
The three days of music are held at Memorial Hall, next to
Music Hall, but this year there will also be an art exhibition at
another great, vintage Over-the-Rhine venue, The Emery Theatre. An
exhibit of works by Nathlie Provosty and Jessie Henson will be up at the
Theatre Friday, 4-7 p.m., Saturday, 12-4 p.m. and Sunday, 1-7 p.m. Bryce
Dessner will perform at a "gallery party" on Sunday 4-6 p.m. The Emery
happenings are free and open to the public.
Click here for ticketing and further info.
North African group Tinariwen opens MusicNOW with true World music
0 Comments · Wednesday, April 10, 2013
The backstory of Tinariwen founder
Ibrahim Ag Alhabib is so cinematic in scope that it should be the basis
for an epic independent film.
0 Comments · Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Once upon a time, audiences fell in love with Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová as their characters in the hit movie Once
fell slowly into an unrequited affair rooted in their shared musical
passion. They stepped off the screen together, formed a group (The Swell
Season) and took their love affair on the road.