Recorded while still in the grunge band Heatmiser (who I know precious little about other than Sam Coomes of Quasi was also in it), this short 30-minute album was recorded in Elliott Smith’s girlfriend's basement on a four-track machine for his own amusement, well before he realized that there was an audience out there waiting to dissect his every word. Given that, this is Smith's most "lo-fi" and intimately personal recording, as lyrically most of these songs are either raw, angry rants about his abusive stepfather (which are all the more chilling for his whispery delivery) or describe his feelings of isolation, dislocation, and depression, plus his penchant for using alcohol as a solvent to deal with his problems. Musically, this album consists of spare folk songs that bring to mind Pink Moon era Nick Drake. Although his melodies are at times samey sounding and/or nondescript (though never unpleasant), his lyrical imagery (“I’m a roman candle, my head is full of flames”) and universal everyman storytelling (on “Drive All Over Town” he’s looking all over for his wayward woman, for example) are always worth a second look, and his hushed, plaintive, whispery vocals are an added enticement. Oddly enough, the album’s best guitar melodies appear on “No Name #1” and “No Name #2” (remember, when he recorded this album he didn't think it would actually get released, so there was no need to bother titling songs I guess), the latter adding some harmonica to flesh out his sound. Elsewhere, Smith doubles up his voice or his guitar parts (he’s the only one who sings or plays guitar on the album), and he even occasionally adds electric guitar or (with help from Pete Krebs on two songs) percussion (mixed back though it is), though the intense “Last Call” - whose suicidal lyrics are a grim precursor to October 21, 2003 - is the only song here that could possibly be called rocking. “Kiwi Maddog 20/20,” a surf instrumental that closes things out, is a pretty, pleasant oddity, but by and large these consistently well crafted if unexciting acoustic-based songs share (too) similar qualities (the title track, “Condor Ave.,” and "No Name #3," the latter later on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, are other notable entries). Fortunately, Smith is a gifted singer-songwriter and guitarist whose melodies are often more intricate than they at first appear, and this was an impressive first album from a man whose work would become more ambitious and whose sound would subsequently expand as a result, much to the chagrin of some of his early fans - many also insecure loner types - who embraced the gentle intimacy of this demo-like recording.
Elliott Smith (Kill Rock Stars '95) Rating: A-
More of the same musically, only with more songs (12 this time) and lyrics that are less unflinchingly honest and more open to interpretation; they're also less about his stepfather (only "Southern Belle" goes there) and more about drug and alcohol addiction, two topics that Smith was unfortunately intimately familiar with. Again, most of these songs, which are still minimalist but a bit more accessible and easy to embrace this time out, sound rather plain and samey sounding at first, but repeat listens bear out distinct differences between these consistently engaging tracks. As with most of the songs here, "Needle In The Hay" (one of Smith's most famous songs) is just a guy and his guitar, but the intense whispered chorus sticks and its tale of drug abuse is truly harrowing, while "Christian Brothers" has a more lushly layered, fleshed out sound along with some truly pissed off lyrics. The lovely "Clementine" shows how Smith the storyteller can vividly set a scene, while "Southern Belle" gets dark ("killing a southern belle"), with Smith's vigorous acoustic strumming being especially intense towards the end. "Single File" shows Smith's talents for multi-tracking his vocals as well as his underrated guitar playing, while "Coming Up Roses," arguably the album's most instantly appealing track, features more forceful vocals than Smith's usual plaintive style, with some accordion (I think) and even an electric guitar adding slightly more diverse instrumentation than what was featured on Roman Candle. Elsewhere, "Alphabet Town" is notable for its lonesome harmonica, "Good To Go" perfectly sums up Smith's down-and-out appeal to the slacker indie crowd ("I wouldn't be a hero if I wasn't such a zero"), and the pretty "The Biggest Lie" provides another early, eerie foreshadowing ("oh we're so very precious you and I, and everything you do makes me want to die"). Again, some of these songs and others not mentioned may seem rather nondescript at first, and perhaps a couple of songs on side two never quite register (side one is simply outstanding), but Smith's subtle attention to detail, both lyrically and musically, makes him stand out from the singer-songwriter crowd.
Either/Or (Kill Rock Stars '97) Rating: A
Elliott Smith may not be an artist you “get” the first time around. Give him a few more listens, however, and chances are good that you’ll eventually find his melancholic, low-key mood music addictive. As with his previous two albums, what one immediately notices on Either/Or is his hushed, intimate vocals and spare (primarily) acoustic-based melodies, though this time around he's much more likely to flesh out his sound with layered guitars and vocals (which are more up front in the mix), drums, or even keyboards. Mingle Simon & Garfunkel and The Beatles with Nick Drake and add a dash of lo-fi production courtesy of grunge ties (though the impressively rocking “Cupid’s Trick” is the only remotely grungey track on the album) and you’ll get a good idea of what this guy sounds like. It’s an impressive package but in a very subtle way, and though like its predecessors this album is sometimes too hushed and dreary for its own good, Smith’s way with words and some deceptively catchy, more easily graspable melodies (“Speed Trials,” “Alameda,” “Ballad Of Big Nothing,” “Pictures Of Me,” "Rose Parade," "Punch and Judy," "Angeles," "Say Yes" - most of the album, really) makes up for the infrequent lackluster moments. Lyrically, this album is less about Smith's tough childhood and dependencies (drugs/booze), but despite some lighter moments most of the topics are still grim: feelings of emptiness, social anxiety issues, anger about the music industry, relationship woes, etc. Smith’s music fits most circumstances but is best for cozying up to during lonely times, ‘cause no matter how stuck in a rut you are this guy’s got it worse (“I hope you’re not waiting around for me, ‘cause I’m not going anywhere, obviously”). Yet so strong are the songs on this excellent album that it typically leaves me feeling uplifted rather than depressed.
XO (Dreamworks '98) Rating: A
After receiving a Grammy nomination for “Miss Misery,” one of several high-profile contributions to the Good Will Hunting soundtrack (who among us who saw it can forget his surreal appearance at the Oscars with Celine Dion and Trisha Yearwood?), Elliott Smith’s major label debut was highly anticipated. Fortunately, Smith lives up to the hype, and XO subsequently appeared on almost every significant year-end critic's list (though 1998 was one of the dreariest years in recent memory). Like his previous albums, XO is built around intimate melodies, Smith’s often-whispered vocals, and lonely lyrics like “I’m never gonna know you now, but I’m gonna love you anyhow.” However, the melodic element increases each time out, and the major label budget has increased the amount of sounds at Smith’s disposal (much to the dismay of some old fans who preferred the raw intimacy of his early albums), with alternately playful or pretty piano/keyboards and lush strings nicely layered atop his fragile acoustic guitar and often multi-tracked vocals. This is a welcome expansion of what can still be a pretty one-dimensional sound, and XO is another album that grows on you over time (all of his albums require a little patience), though some songs suffer somewhat from a samey blandness. Then again, Beatlesque songs such as the catchy “Baby Britain” and “Bled White” are actually musically upbeat, and Smith’s soothing “oohs” and “aahs” are strangely comforting despite the scathing self-observations (“I’m not half of what I wish I was”), regret-filled relationships, and general angst that populates his songs. "Sweet Adeline," "Tomorrow Tomorrow," “Waltz #2 (XO),” and “Independence Day” are other instantly identifiable standouts, several other songs are more subtle but still stellar, while the baroque buildup of “Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands” is a personal favorite and “Amity” is this album’s out-of-place sounding loud song. However, to name individual songs is really to miss the point, as XO, Smith's most accessible and arguably best album (along with Either/Or), is best appreciated when listened to in its entirety, without distractions. Filled with both sadness and beauty, XO is a musically and emotionally rich affair that unflinchingly and quite movingly details real adult emotions time after time.
Figure 8 (Dreamworks '00) Rating: A-
This album continues along the path of XO by again taking advantage of major label bucks, thus allowing Smith to paint a far broader musical canvas (unsurprisingly, as someone who prefers the string-laden Bryter Layter over the stripped down Pink Moon I approve of his search for a fuller sound). In addition to his sparkling piano and chiming (or acoustic) guitar work comes multi-tracked harmonies and well placed strings that can occasionally swell on some symphonic song endings (“Everything Means Nothing To Me,” "Stupidity Tries,” “Can’t Make A Sound”). Once again Smith’s songs are populated by perpetual losers at love, and he’s alternately accusatory (“I had tender feelings that you made hard”), accepting (“all I want now is happiness for you and me”), and self-pitying (“I couldn’t think of a thing that I hope tomorrow brings”). But he’s not always so depressing or self-involved, finding time to write a song about his adopted hometown of “LA” and adding his two cents to recent junk culture topics (“Son Of Sam,” “Junk Bond Trader”). A harder rocking Nick Drake and The Beatles are again reference points musically, and though perhaps few of these songs stand out at first and in truth can on occasion seem bland or insignificant, like all of Smith’s albums Figure 8 rewards repeat plays and needs to be taken as a whole for a full appreciation. Actually, songs such as "Somebody That I Used To Know," "Everything Reminds Me Of Her," "Easy Way Out," "Happiness," and "I Better Be Quiet Now" do stand out, as do most of the aforementioned songs, but with 16 often-homogenous sounding songs (a consistent Smith weakness but this is the first album to suffer from cd-era length so it stands out that much more) spanning over 52 minutes there are simply too many of them, and Smith is more impressive in his mellower style than when he rocks out, which he does more often here than on previous albums. Still, by and large Smith has again emerged with a winner, making the album that he felt comfortable making without any obvious commercial concessions; the fuller, more baroque sound is but a natural progression, and that Smith so freely plays around with various newfound sounds attests to his ever-increasing confidence as a musician. Alas, Smith will not get to further build upon this album's strengths; having spent years struggling with drug and alcohol depencencies plus depression, Smith committed suicide on October 21, 2003. I tried to write these reviews without the benefit of hindsight, but as is often the case with these things (think Nirvana's In Utero) I suppose that the signs pointing towards his sad end were there. Turns out Elliott really meant it when he sang of how “Everything Means Nothing To Me,” and fittingly enough the album ends with an icy ambient instrumental titled simply “Bye.” Bye, Elliott, and rest in peace; you'll be missed.
From A Basement On The Hill (Dreamworks '04) Rating: B+
Pieced together by long-time producer Rob Schnapf and former girlfriend and current Jick (Stephen Malkmus' backing band) Joanna Bolme and released 1 year after his gruesome suicide death (Smith stabbed himself twice in the heart), From A Basement On The Hill is an elegant (likely) farewell album from a talented but troubled songsmith. As with most such posthumous releases, there are some jarringly inappropriate touch ups (though most of these tracks were allegedly near completion at the time of his death) and the overall flow could be better, plus as with Figure 8 the album is a little longer than it needs to be. Still, this is a very worthwhile release that’s worth poring over beyond searching for Elliott’s obvious cries for help, which are easily given away by lyrics like “I’m through trying now, it’s a big relief” and “I know my place, hate my face, I know how I began, and how I’ll end,” as well as song titles such as “Let’s Get Lost,” “Strung Out Again,” “A Fond Farewell,” and “Last Hour.” Fortunately, the music, which is more diverse and rocking (and more Beatlesque) than any previous Elliott Smith album, makes this more than merely a pity party for you lonesome indie types. Indeed, From A Basement On The Hill encompasses the charmingly pretty and poignant acoustic ditties that characterized his early work (“Let’s Get Lost,” “Fond Farewell,” “A Passing Feeling,” “Memory Lane”), the lush neo-psychedelic pop that he came to favor later on (“Pretty (Ugly Before”, “King’s Crossing,” “Twilight”), and it even shows some new moves, such as the catchy, surprisingly rocking album opener “Coast To Coast” and “Shooting Star,” which has a deliberately sloppy fadeout as Elliott attempts epic scale rock ‘n’ roll. Not everything here works, and the album is lacking in obvious classics (Either/Or and XO remain Smith’s benchmark releases in that regard), but this was a highly worthwhile endeavor that if anything enhanced Smith’s still growing status. It’s a pity that drug addiction, depression, and various relationship woes (all topics that have always dominated his songs) became too much for Smith to bear, and that he didn’t get to finish the album himself (perhaps he would’ve better ironed out some of its more obvious flaws), but at least his music will live on, and From A Basement On The Hill provides fitting closure to an impressively consistent and often outstanding discography. P.S. New Moon, containing 24 previously unreleased songs, followed in 2007, but as of this writing I haven't heard it yet.
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