It's easy sometimes to dismiss music without really examining it, some years back fellow Lugs reviewer Gordon Russell gave me a tape of Elliot Smith's XO album, his first major label release. I played it twice if I'm lucky and dismissed it offhand, a bit tuneless as I remember. My attention was grabbed by From A Basement On A Hill featuring in many of the 2004's best of the year lists. As it turns out maybe I need to go back and check Smith's back catalogue because this is a rather excellent record.
This release is posthumous, the troubled Smith took his own life in 2003.The fifteen tracks are cobbled from the album he was working on, the final outcome has led to some debate about versions and mixes, the end result was overseen by Elliot Smith's father.
As has been stated elsewhere despite this background the record is not disjointed and there is a uniformity of feel and sound throughout.
The Smith I remember was a mostly acoustic performer albeit with a loose punky unpolished feel , of course this didn't stop an Oscar nomination for Miss Misery on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. This album has a garage band sound reminiscent in places of Big Star and The Lemonheads although there are more acoustic based songs with a hint of a Beatles fixation.The fourteen songs (there is also a short sound effect track) take up 58 minutes but there is an awful lot happening on each track and I mean that in a good sense.
The album is particularly strong in melody which makes for a nice counterbalance to the loose and sometimes grungy arrangements. Lyrically you can't escape that a lot of the material is based on Smith's drug culture lifestyle but it is a not an exercise in nihilism as most of the songs seem observational. Ultimately it is the music that lifts this record away from the downbeat; a comparison might be an enjoyable and entertaining film with darker subject matter. The quality of songwriting is consistent and Smith's voice whilst fragile is comfortable within the energetic musical backing and remains the focal point with lyrics that are exceptionally well crafted.
The majority of the material has a strong band presence, guitar breaks and refrains compliment many of the songs and a strong keyboard/ piano sound is offset with economic but powerful drumming. The highlights are tracks such as Pretty (Ugly Before), a real moment of slacker beauty, the complex Kings Crossing where a ghostly piano emerges from a sonic fog before segueing into intense sonics. Similarly the closing A Distorted Reality which features a wider lyrical vision and several dynamic musical changes without ever sacrificing melody.
Even the more acoustic based material feature nice touches. Twilight has a great swirling keyboard break, Little One's Beatles influenced melody has effective backwards taping and A Fond Farewell's great tune is driven by an electric riff as Smith strums the main parts.
Only the Vaudeville balladry of Memory Lane stands alone and a bit out of place.
The remaining tracks condense both of these styles; Strung Out Again with its junkie nightmare take on The Beatles starts acoustic and breaks into band mode as a George Harrison style lead line dominates the song. Don't Go Down has a more metallic, edgier groove.
Opening track Coast To Coast takes a rawer stance and Shooting Star the album's longest track are two of the more ordinary moments.
The production works well, it retains detail whilst conveying the loose live feel that is obviously intended and Smith's vocals never got lost in the sometimes complex mix, the quieter moments also work in this fashion, the elements of grain and dirt fit the context of the music. It all sounds just a bit out of focus and yet it works.
The tragic demise of Elliot Smith has been shrouded in mystery (unusually he stabbed himself) and listening to this record despite its sometimes bleak observations reveals no suicidal intent. The quality and vitality of this music sounds like a man either detaching himself from self-destruction or learning to live with his demons.
This album has become one of my very favourite releases of 2004; its appeal grows on repeated listens. It is full of contradictions; structured arrangements with a loose vibe, a view from the darker side that has an upbeat feel and not least an underground release that reveals itself as a very tuneful and enjoyable record.
© Ben campbell