Roman Candle (Remastered Edition)
(KILL ROCK STARS)
[Rating: 4 stars]
Before he presumably took his own life in 2003, Elliott Smith’s music was already tinged with sadness and misery. But for anyone looking to enter the same headspace, his hard-earned songs could be comforting and beautiful. Now, there’s an extra air of sadness — even more so than with Kurt Cobain, Smith’s death seems to color his music posthumously.
An innate craftsman, Smith’s records were always melancholy masterpieces. And it’s fitting that his first album was as good as his last. Roman Candle, his 1994 debut, was recorded in a basement on a borrowed four track, and was never meant to be an album. Smith comes across as a guy so apathetic he couldn’t even bother to name all the tracks — four are titled “No Name,” and are instead given a number. There’s little evidence of the depression to come on Roman Candle, which, after a sonic touch-up, quite literally has never sounded better. What is evident is a brooding anger, and allusions to alcoholism (the closing instrumental is called Kiwi Maddog 20 20). Take the opening track: “I want to hurt him, I want to bring him pain/I’m a roman candle, my heart is filled with flames.” His signature double-tracked vocals and incredibly vivid acoustic guitar work are first heard here, establishing that patented Elliott Smith sound, which he’d expand on throughout his career.
From A Basement On The Hill
(KILL ROCK STARS)
[Rating: 5 stars]
Three years in the making, From a Basement on the Hill is Smith’s Abbey Road. It’s arguably his most mature and fully realized work, despite the fact that he never got the chance to finish it. Smith was a recording genius, and he worked that studio magic all over Basement On The Hill, cloaking himself in a Beatles-y sheen on opener “Coast To Coast” and elsewhere: harmonizing with himself, playing most of the instruments himself (with help from Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips and Sam Coomes of Quasi), and subverting the Beatles’ sound for his own artistic purposes.
“Let’s Get Lost” is acoustic glory a la “Here Comes the Sun,” with yet another perfect Smith drug metaphor: “I’ll burn every bridge that I crossed/ and find some beautiful place to get lost.” On “Pretty (Ugly Before),” when he sings “I felt so ugly before, I didn’t know what to do,” the desperation is palpable and poignant, backed by a chord progression that collapses in on itself, pulling you in with it.
“King’s Crossing” has the rolling verbiage of Bright Eyes: “This is the place where time reverses/Dead men talk to all the pretty nurses.” It also contains the sobering lines, “I can’t prepare for death any more than I already have” and “give me one good reason not to do it.” “A Fond Farewell” is catchy, ethereal, and heartbreaking: “This is not my life, it’s just a fond farewell to a friend.”
Elliott Smith is remastering all his albums in heaven. The rest of us will have to settle for gifts like these.