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Elliott Smith - From A Basement On A Hill
Label: Anti
Release: 2004

Tracklisting:
Coast to Coast
Let's Get Lost
Pretty (Ugly Before)
Don't Go Down
Strung Out Again
A Fond Farewell
King's Crossing
Ostriches & Chirping
Twilight
A Passing Feeling
Last Hour
Shooting Star
Memory Lane
Little One
A Distorted Reality is Now A Necessity to be Free
From A Basement On A Hill - Elliott Smith
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Average Blamo User Rating: (153 votes)

I recently found out by means of Elliott Smith's message board that his posthumous album "From A Basement On A Hill" had been leaked onto soulseek. I was quick to boot up the program and anxiously download the album track by track and make quiet squeals of joy with every track.

Somehow though, I've come to find that many of my peers who are probably almost as in love with Mr. Smith's music as I am, are refusing to download it till it's released. It seems to have become common place, I experienced the same thing after I'd downloaded the new Modest Mouse album before it was released. Which, for your information, I purchased the day it was released anyway.

To simply ask why would be silly, because I can pretty much piece together why from answer I've gotten. The generally consensus is that it takes away from the experience to just download it. Many people complain that their speakers are low quality and that it could take away from their first listen. I've never noticed, personally, the difference in sounds between my computer speakers and the speakers on my CD player, but then again, not only do I have probably below average hearing, but my CD player is about ten years old.

I can respect that people are waiting for it to be released to buy it and listen to it, but I don't have the restraint. I've been teased with live versions of all fourteen songs for over a year and I refused to wait any longer than I had to. I am very pleased with the album, in fact I'm listening to it right now.

To get into the album in itself in sort of an almost-review-fashion, it's his most "different" work to date. It seems that with every passing album he's become a little bit more experimental, not only musically but the songs in general (aside from 1994's Roman Candle and 1995's Elliott Smith, between which the sound doesn't change much, aside from a few minor parts here and there in the self-titled effort where he adds a drum or two.)

Listening to the album and expecting to hear what I'd heard in the live versions, I was very surprised. "Coast to Coast" which before was an emotional rollercoaster through acoustic guitar strings slapping against the neck, has went to a loud rocking almost balls-out song with electric guitars, small solos, and loud drums. Similar treatments have been given to "Don't Go Down", "Shooting Star", and a little bit less so, "King's Crossing", which is definitely louder and livelier, but not quite as rocky, but still powerful. "Strung Out Again" starts similar to what I'm familiar with but comes in with electric guitar riffs that remind me of the more underground efforts from Pink Floyd's early work. These changes, however, although unexpected, aren't bad. It puts a different take on songs, to the point where people who will hear these songs without looking at the track list on the back of the CD won't know what it is before he starts singing familiar lyrics, or if you're in the case of a handful of Elliott Smith fans who have never heard the live versions, probably still impressed.

A few of the songs play exactly like the live versions, "Let's Get Lost", "Twilight" (formerly known as "Somebody's Baby"), "Fond Farewell", "Memory Lane", "Little One", and "Last Hour" (formerly known as "Make It Over") share the same sound as their live predecessors, save for little pleasant additions like a line of backing vocals here and there, and the crisper sound you get from recording in a studio as opposed to a tape deck an audience has strategically placed beside him under his coat. These come out about as I expected but even better, because of the crisper sound when I'm used to rough live versions. Also, it seems that Mr. Smith's voice shines a lot more. A big appealing thing about Mr. Smith in my eyes is his way of playing 6 songs with just an acoustic guitar and his voice without making the songs sound even remotely similar. He can make something beautiful and fresh without adding anything to the mix, but when he does it's just as good.

The rest of the cd consists of "Pretty (Ugly Before)", a pop/rock song that was put out as a 7" a few months before Mr. Smith died, which ends up being his last release during his life, an updated version of the b-side, "A Distorted Reality is Now A Necessity to be Free", which goes from simple organs and guitar to more lush orchestration, backing vocals, updated lyrics, and a generally more powerful approach. Similarly updated are "A Passing Feeling", which goes from the acoustic guitar/vocals approach that was heard to be the same thing with bonuses. He adds piano, a little bit of electric guitar, and gives a song that before I thought was one of the weaker unreleased songs and makes it more powerful and very pleasant.

I think overall that it is a fantastic album and possibly his best. He experiments more than ever and comes out with something unique and beautiful from start to finish. Fans of the heavy emotional weight of some of his quieter songs from "XO", "Figure 8", and pretty much the bulk of the early stuff will be pleased. Fans of the rocked out and orchestrated pop/rock songs that made up the bulk of "XO" and "Figure 8" will be pleased as well. The record is a complete package of musical finesse, beautiful songwriting, heavy emotions, and a powerful production that will please most. Those who aren't pleased were expecting more than any man could ever create, and one of the best parts of music is that people like Elliott Smith, just regular people, can make beautiful things happen, like this music.

Reviewer Rating of CD :

There's obviously a certain amount of buzz surrounding this record. It's been a full four years since the release of Elliott's last studio album, Figure 8, and practically since that time, fans have been clamoring for the follow up. Rumors of Mr Smith releasing a defining work - the White Album of his time - began to surface. There were whispers of a double-disc release, an epic masterpiece unlike anything in his back catalouge. And of course the biggest bucket of gasoline on the fire was the artist's death under dubious circumstances 363 days before the album sees the light of day.

In the wake of that tragedy, Rob Schnapf - a former producer and collaborator of Elliott's who worked with him on the masterful Either/Or - and Joanna Bolme - another collaborator in a similar fashion, as well as an ex-girlfriend - worked together to piece the completed tracks into a posthumous release. The result stands as a 15 song, single-CD collection that isn't quite the godsend it was rumored to be, but certainly stands with the best work of a very talented songwriter.

Were one to listen to Smith's six albums in order, there's a certain entropic element in the musical progression (not to mention that each record gets progressively longer - this clocks in just shy of an hour - six minutes longer than Figure 8 and nearly twice as long as Smith's solo debut Roman Candle. But I digress). From A Basement on the Hill continues in that tradition, as is evident right from the bombastic opening of 'Coast to Coast.' A spooky string ensemble gives way to a distorted and percussive bombast, typical of the harder-edged songs on this album. In addition, the electric-sludge mix of 'Don't Go Down' and the epic 'Shooting Star' (Smith's longest studio recording that I know of at six minutes) assure that this is the most "rock" album in the singer/songwriter's catalouge.

While the bulk of the songs fall into a pleasant middle ground, these powerhouse, wall-of-sound tracks are balanced out by quieter throwbacks to the more acoustic-driven style of Elliott's Kill Rock Stars albums (the self-titled work and the aforementioned Either/Or). The most obvious of these is 'The Last Hour,' an underprodouced vocal harmony and acoustic guitar track. The somewhat more uptempo 'Let's Get Lost' and the somber 'Little One' are a bit slicker sounding, but would still be at home on earlier works.

There are elements of the adventurous nature of this record scattered about here and there. For example, both 'Coast to Coast' and the superb 'King's Crossing' contain found-vocal samples and the latter takes nearly two minutes for the vocal to kick in - a change from Smith's typically very direct style. And then, there's 'Ostrich & Chirping' - a hallucinatory intermission that sounds like something out of a 1940's Disney movie.

For the first time, full lyrics are not included in the liner notes for the album - quite probably because of Elliott's passing. Instead, actual handwritten lyric sheets (one on hotel stationery, another obviously crumpled up at one point and all contaning cross-outs and margin scribbles) appear for a handful of the songs. But the vocals are mixed very cleanly and Elliott's characteristic themes of loss, addiction, death and anger manage to shine through. It's difficult not to reflect on Elliott's death when listening to Basement, but viewing the album as a suicide note is very much unfair, given the time period during which most of the songs were written (largely 2000-2002, to my knowledge). However, tracks like 'A Fond Farewell' with lines like "A dying man in a living room / whose shadow paces the floor / who'll take you out any open door / this is not my life / it's just a fond farewell to a friend / who couldn't get things right" or 'A Passing Feeling' which laments "Though I'm beyond belief / in the help I require / just to exist at all / took a long time to stand / took an hour to fall" do take on a new poigniancy.

The standout tracks here are the aforementioned 'King's Crossing,' and 'Twilight' - an absolutely heartbreaking ballad midway through with a devastatingly beautiful instrumental verse that's just icing on the cake. The record's closer is also noteworthy. The awkwardly titled 'A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to Be Free' has been renovated from the quirky b-side that appeared in late 2003. It now stands as a guitar driven crescendo and an acerbic political statement that closes things on a definite high note.

There's some question, of course, as to how this version of the album would stand against what we might have seen had Elliott lived to oversee it's release. Unfortunately, it's one of those things we'll never have the answer to, but what we do have is a very fine album, to be sure. It's not as raw as Either/Or or as immediately accessable as XO, which are generally regarded to be his two finest works. Instead, I'd go so far to say that Basement is probably the most carefully constructed and and the biggest "grower" (that is to say that it takes a little time to really appreciate) in Elliott's catalouge. The only taint on this worthy addition to the canon, is that it is the final work, yet it seems to sit right on the edge of something incredibly profound, and just as elusive. Though maybe that, in and of itself, is a testament to a great man's genius.





Reviewer Rating of CD :

 


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