Califone – “Needle In The Hay” (Elliott Smith Cover)

Here’s a song that would have sent the indie-rock internet into fits of euphoria had it dropped in, say, 2004. It should still elicit that kind of reaction, but I’m not sure KIDS THESE DAYS can properly appreciate Califone covering Elliott Smith. Or maybe it’s just that none of them can hear this track without paying a subscription fee to Jeff Bezos. Either way, the true heads should feel free to flip out about this.

Tim Rutili’s experimental folk-rock project returned this year with Echo Mine, their first proper album in seven years. Today Califone are back with their version of “Needle In The Hay,” the iconic opening track from Elliott Smith’s self-titled album. (Maybe you remember it from The Royal Tenenbaums? Or maybe you’re too young to have watched The Royal Tenenbaums, for shame?) Originally this was a spare, whispery, voice-and-acoustic-guitar situation, but Rutili and friends have gone ahead and turned it into a Califone song: noisy, deconstructed, bursting with creativity, haunted by despair. It rules, obviously. They oughta be proud.

Unfortunately, you can only hear this song if you subscribe to Amazon Music; it’s out today via the streaming service’s playlist The Setlist. Fortunately, that means Rutili probably got real paid — like that Beck song? From Midnite Vultures? (In case you can’t tell, I miss 1999. And 2004, for that matter. Though our pandemic-poisoned present does have its merits, like Califone covering Elliott Smith’s “Needle In The Hay.”)

Rutili and collaborators Ben Massarella, Rachel Blumberg, and Jeffery Underhill recorded this track with John Askew on March 12 and 13 of this year, right before the world went into lockdown mode. Here’s what Rutili has to say about it:

We recorded this song right before the quarantine started. It was lovely to work with my friends and be all together in the studio making this thing. I know we appreciated it while it was happening. As soon as it was finished we headed back to LA to hide away. It feels like a million years ago. This song reeks of druggy, weird old Portland in the 90’s. A stop on tour and a place I went to visit friends. I remember the smell and feel of the place very well. It feels like yesterday.

There’s a spare tension and desperation baked into this song that is unavoidable. We just played it and tried not to reference the original recording outside of the melodies, words and chord progression. We tried to bring our own texture and feel to it. Singing other people’s songs can sometimes feel like acting. This is a song I never could have written but I can feel where it comes from. It felt natural to play this character. Elliott Smith was definitely one of the best songwriters of our generation. His voice and his songs always hit me solidly in the heart from the first time I heard his music and saw him play all those years ago. Hope we did this song justice.

Listen below, if you can.