Elliott Smith


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Roman Candle , 7/10
Elliott Smith , 6.5/10
Either Or , 6/10
Xo , 6.5/10
Figure 8, 5/10
From A Basement On A Hill (2004), 5/10
New Moon (2007), 5/10
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(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

Elliott Smith, Heatmiser's Dallas-born singer and songwriter, emerged in the 1990s as one of the most authentic voices of his generation from the moment he started his solo career with the subdued Roman Candle (Cavity Search, 1994). The spare, acoustic arrangements and anemically whispered lyrics create tuneful vignettes of daily life that share a bit of Nick Drake's melancholia and a bit of Simon & Garfunkel's romanticism (and possibly a bit of Leadbelly's archaic blues). Smith's characters are misfits consumed with a passion, that can be literal (alcohol and drug excesses) or metaphorical. Last Call, Roman Candle and Condor Ave are especially warm and profound.

Elliott Smith (Kill Rock Stars, 1995) focused on heroin addiction. While using the same tools, Smith delves deeper into the human psyche and his generation's malaise with Needle In The Hay (one of his best), Coming Up Roses, The Biggest Lie, Southern Belle.

The success of Miss Misery, included in the film soundtrack of "Good Will Hunting" (1997), turned Elliott Smith into a household name. At the same time, Either Or (Kill Rock Stars, 1997) introduced a rock and electric sound. Suddenly, the bouncing music-hall rhythms that had always propelled his ballads come to the forefront (Pictures of Me, Alameda). This transitional work lacks the firm hand of the earlier albums, despite Angeles and Between the Bars.

Low-key arrangements of violins, reeds and keyboards in the tradition of the Beach Boys and Big Star enhance the overall delivery of Xo (Dreamworks, 1998). Bled White and Baby Britain may invest too much in the melodic hooks rather than the story and the magnetism, but elsewhere Smith finds again his top form, albeit in a less depressed tone: the delicate, intimate, almost whispered, almost hypnotic, barely strummed lullaby of Sweet Adeline (that soars in an electrifying refrain), the psychedelic melisma and classical piano figure of Waltz #1, the a cappella vocal harmonies of I Didn't Understand.
The melodies are uniformly elegant and catchy, whether played with Nick Drake's abysmal apathy (the gentle country ballad Tomorrow Tomorrow, and especially the rustic, domestic pathos of Waltz #2) or accompanied by a more commercial arrangement (Bottle Up And Explode, Independence Day).

In the meantime, Smith had relocated to Los Angeles and released the single Happiness (1999).

Clumsy arrangements ruin Smith's delicate poetry on Figure 8 (Dreamworks, 2000) Easy Way Out and Somebody That I Used To Know sound like somebody trying to imitate Elliott Smith's Miss Misery or I Don't Think. Son Of Sam has one of his best guitar solos, but Junk Bond Trader sounds like George Harrison (not a compliment). And Everything Means Nothing To Me even threatens to revive the spectre of Elvis Costello. All that is left is a bunch of imitations of the Beatles and the Beach Boys (bands that are not exactly Beethoven), with not even the avant-retro look and feel of Jellyfish or the Posies.

Elliot Smith committed suicide in october 2003 at age 34.

From A Basement On A Hill (Anti, 2004) is his last unfinished record, completed by friends and family. The album is an exercise in necrophilia that hardly sheds light on the artist's ultimate decision or on his creative status before dying. It is divided more or less equally between the over-produced Smith of the late period (Coast To Coast) and the spartan Smith of the early days (Let's Get Lost). Few of the songs sound essential, although King's Crossing and A Fond Farewell may have enduring power because of their lyrics, while Twilight and Pretty repeat popular Elliott Smith rites. It is impossible to tell if Smith would have approved the sequencing: Shooting Star has been moved to a position to which most critics don't even get (in fact, most reviews did not mention it), despite being Smith's favorite. and Suicide Machines is missing (or re-titled?)

The double-CD New Moon (Kill Rock Stars, 2007) collects leftovers from the mid 1990s, notably Angel in the Snow.

An Introduction to Elliott Smith (2010) is a career retrospective. Either Or.

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