Friday, 19 October 2012

Rate The Albums: Elliott Smith

As part of our new weekly feature at Heavy Metal Mouth, we'll be counting down the discography of our favourite artists from first to last. We started last week with Bright Eyes, which you can find below.

This week, it's Elliott Smith.


1. Either/Or
Either/Or was the logical next step in Elliott Smith's career following his self titled 1995 release; that was an album consisting of only a voice and guitar for the most part, but when it's Smith's voice coupled with his incredible gift for words to release his ever present depression and self doubt, it makes for great listening. So the incorporation of a full band and extra instrumentation was a forward move that made Either/Or possibly the greatest album in Smith's catalogue and definitley my personal favourite.
The combination of Smith's early lo-fi sound and his increasing ambiton made for an album that demonstrated melodic simplicity and the lyrical complexity Smith was famous for. His vocals never sounded better either; examples including the world weary resignation of Rose Parade, self loathing, aggressive delivery on Cupids Trick and the quiet, tragic optimism of Say Yes (the only song in Smith's catalogue that could be rightly classified as uplifting or positive, but even so it's dripping with self doubt and anxiety).
After this Elliott developed his sound even further; the full band on Either/Or was introduced to a full scale orchestra and multi layered compositions that brought new technically complex heights but left behind the sheer intimacy of what had come before. As good as XO and Figure 8 sounded, they just couldn't match the quiet, touching pain and effortless masterpiece that is Either/Or.

Best Tracks: Ballad of Big Nothing/ Rose Parade/ Say Yes

2. Elliott Smith
As said above, Either/Or took a step forward from Elliott's self titled second album and introduced a backing band to the singer, but while it's my top choice, that's not to say Smith couldn't be just as effective with his voice and acoustic guitar. The self titled is stripped down, basic instrumentation but it's filled with raw emotion and burning intensity, the like of which you'd expect to hear on a hardcore punk album, and Elliott acheives it with no more than his voice and guitar. With the exception of his final recordings, it's as dark as he could ever get too; Needle In The Hay sets the anxious tone early on and it follows up with haunting ballads such as Alphabet Town and St. Ides Heaven. The best is saved for last though- The Biggest Lie is an affecting tale of a failed relationship, and one of the late songwriters finest moments.

Best Tracks: Needle In The Hay/Alphabet Town/The Biggest Lie

3. From A Basement On The Hill
I can see how this would be a controversial choice for Smith fans; the fact that Basement was incomplete at the time of Elliott's death meant that the track selection was left to others judgement, and the huge catalogue of recorded material left behind by Smith made it impossible to choose a final product for fans to be happy with. I don't blame them; Ostriches and Chirping was neither written or recorded by Smith (It was actually a sound loop created in studio by the record producer) yet it accidently made the album ahead of a number of incredible B-Sides like Abused, Some Song or Placeholder.
But the fact is Elliott was gone and we were never going to get the double album he'd originally intended; it needs to be accepted for what it is and when listened to with an open mind, Basement is an extraordinary collection of songs that expose the fragile mindset of a troubled genius in his final days. Similiar to In Utero in this aspect, Basement is unrivaled for its brutal honesty, intense emotive delivery and the aching sadness buried deep within every track. Lyrically, Smith is at his peak; King's Crossing burns images into the back of your mind to convey Smith's depression and failure to overcome his drug addiction, while A Fond Farewell addresses the end of close friendship that Smith acknowledges was his own fault. Later in the album, The Last Hour, a song written originally in the early 90's during the Heatmiser days, sounds as though it could have recorded minutes before his death as a deflated Elliott whispers ''I'm through trying now/ It's a big relief/ I'll be staying down/ Where no one else is gonna give me grief/ Mess me around/ Make it over....''.
It's difficult to listen to the desperate nature of such a remarkable talent- Smith sounds even darker than in his early solo work, but From A Basement On The Hill deserves to be remembered as his final gift to his fans before an untimely death that took an incredible mind from the music world.

Best Tracks: A Fond Farewell/ Kings Crossing/ Shooting Star

4. Figure 8
The second album following Elliott's major label transition and the last recorded and released before his death. Much was made at the time of how Beatlesque the whole thing sounded- granted, songs like In The Lost And Found could have been taken straight from McCartney's discography (and Elliott actually used an old piano of the legendary songwriter in it's recording), but mostly, Figure 8 is an inescapably Elliott Smith affair- that is to say it's aggressive, incredibly passionate and morbidly bleak. Elliott never sounded more angry; songs like Somebody I Used To Know and Everything Means Nothing To Me were bitter tales of betrayal and hopeless sadness that ached through the speakers for Figure 8's 15 track length, and unfortunatley it seemed to suggest that things were only getting worse for the soon to be gone singer.

Best Tracks: Wouldn't Mama Be Proud/Happiness/I Better Be Quiet Now

5. XO
XO introduced a new side to Smith as he took on a grand scale production process for his fourth album and major label debut. The result was successful, with XO's epic style showcasing a more ambitous, developed sound to Elliott and beginning a process that he would continue on Figure 8 on the posthumous From A Basement. Highlights include the heartbreaking nostalgia of Waltz #2, dreampop of Independence Day and the finale of the record, which is executed through the one two punch of the aggressive Everybodys Cares, Everybody Understands and quiet defeat of I Didn't Understand.

Best Tracks: Waltz #2 (XO)/Independence Day/Waltz #1

6. Roman Candle
Roman Candle was the solo debut of the late songwriter and introduced the dark, brutal honesty of Elliott's world with songs like the burning, rage filled title track and the bitter, resigned Last Call. It was early days and Roman Candle was the closest Elliott solo album to his work with Heatmiser, so in truth the debut can't hold up against later solo efforts, but it's still the sound of a remarkable talent, who would soon be developed on the self titled second album.

Best Tracks: Roman Candle/Drive All Over Town/Last Call

Next Week: Death Cab For Cutie

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