Thursday, 23 January 2014
Elliott Smith's Hidden Treasures...
Hidden Treasures: Elliott Smith
26 Sep 2013
Elliott Smith passed away 10 years ago next month. His body of solo work has grown in stature from humble beginnings as the side project of Smith’s day-job band, Heatmiser, to firm pillars in the indie rock pantheon,evolving from home-recorded lo-fi gems (‘Roman Candle’, ‘Elliott Smith’ and ‘Either/Or’), to major label flourishes (‘XO’ and ‘Figure 8’). The material he had been working on up until his death in 2003 was patched together posthumously as ‘From A Basement On A Hill’, not without some controversy over whether the released album represented what Smith had intended.
If you’ve read this far you’re more than likely familiar with the arc those records trace, so we thought we’d take you off piste a little. What follows are not necessarily unreleased songs, but tracks not available on Smith’s studio albums: a mix of bootleg songs, covers and singles which are less well known, even if they are readily available over the internet these days.
‘New Moon’, the acclaimed two-disc set of outtakes and alternate versions, was no odds-and-sods collection but could hold its own against Smith’s ‘proper’ albums. It contained a lot of A-grade material, with the quality of Smith’s outtakes prompting many of those “shoulda made the album” deliberations. But ‘New Moon’ was by no means exhaustive — it only covered the years 1994-1997 (arguably his most consistently excellent period, admittedly), so there’s plenty of unmined gold out there — certainly enough material to fully warrant another release that would be far from those barrel-scraping cash-cow exercises which too frequently do disservice to the legacies of artists who left us too soon. ‘New Moon’, in fact only hinted at the riches lying in the vaults, with around 100 tracks still to see official release.
As such, the selection of songs below should appeal not just to the compulsive, completist fans but to anyone who feels a pang of loss when reminded about Smith’s untimely death ten years ago.
At least three recorded versions of this song exist, illustrating how much Smith liked to rework and refine his songs. Given a dismissive, throwaway title — perhaps deliberately for one of his most straightforward songs — Some Song has a straight-strumming rhythm and a cyclical, repetitive vocal line that lacks his usual melodic twists and turns but is all the more direct and catchy for it. One of his earliest solo songs, it resembles ‘Division Day’, a later single, and is one of his most openly autobiographical songs about his early life in Texas, where he lived until he moved to Portland, Oregon, at 14.
‘Stained Glass Eyes’
A late, unreleased but fully realised song recorded during the sessions that produced the 30-plus tracks which would be pared down to produce ‘From A Basement On The Hill’ after his death. A delicate, understated waltz full of typical Smith imagery: “Rather spend the day blank as hell by the window looking out of my stained glass eyes.”
The flipside to the ‘Son Of Sam’ single, this was an unusually brisk power-pop romp, with Smith slinging out crunchy chords and high harmonies like the first Big Star album. It could even be described as fun, if it was written by anyone other than Smith, who seemed to add gravity to everything he sung.
‘I Don’t Think I’m Ever Gonna Figure It Out’
Appearing as a B-side to ‘Speed Trials’, from ‘Either/Or’, this breezy folk tune is one of Smith’s songs least weighed down with his usual worldly worries. A charming, refreshingly light-hearted piece, it serves as a showcase for his nimble guitar skills. Lyrically it mines the common Smith territory of misunderstanding and miscommunication (see also ‘I Can’t Answer You Anymore’).
‘Trouble’ (Cat Stevens cover)
“Trouble, oh trouble can’t you see you have made me a wreck now won’t you leave me in my misery?” Smith was fond of a cover, and he tried his hand at some odd choices (‘Supersonic’, ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’) alongside some less surprising ones (a whole slew of Beatles songs). But perhaps none fitted him as well as ‘Trouble’, an aching Cat Stevens tune which Smith really inhabits. He sounds thoroughly defeated, and his resigned delivery embodies all the despair of the lyric: “I don’t want no fight and I haven’t got a lot of time” which echoes his own lyric, “I’m tired of being down I got no fight” from Twilight. That this was allegedly one of the last songs he recorded before his death makes it all the more poignant.
At least two studio versions of this late-period song exist: an acoustic demo and a full band version fleshed out with some angelic harmonies that lend it a surreal, eerie edge. It’s a textbook example of Smith juxtaposing bitter words with a sweet melody: “I’m a stickman,” he sings. “I live with one dimension dead.” An unusual song, quite unlike anything else he recorded, it demonstrates the variety and ambition of the material he was coming up with at the time, and how Smith’s vision for ‘From A Basement On The Hill’ could well have been markedly different to what was actually released (producer David McConnell, who worked with Smith on the sessions, certainly thinks so). But, as with Jeff Buckley’s similarly unfinished ‘Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk’, we will forever be kept guessing.
‘I Can’t Answer You Anymore’
From a French promo EP ‘3 Titres Inedits’, released in 2000, this lurching waltz sounds like it could’ve been ripped from the Beatles’ ‘White Album’. The slow-burning bridge builds to a climax (“I did everything right for somebody that does everything wrong”) before Smith turns out some lovely George Harrison-esque guitar. Rougher than the lush sound he adopted for ‘Figure 8’, and easily surpassing most of the material on that album.
‘Cecilia / Amanda’
It’s a small wonder that Smith chose not to include this song, recorded in 1997, on any of his albums, but perhaps he thought the polished, almost ‘Abbey Road’-esque sound didn’t sit alongside the rest of his material. The obscure lyric finds Smith describing a character “Dancing on a permanent scratch in a place where lonely men pay to make their opposites match.” The vocal sweeps up an octave for the last verse as Smith sings “If you got a little baby now I don’t wanna see him round here no more.” Smith recorded a version of this song with different lyrics way back with his high school band, Stranger Than Fiction. ‘Cecilia / Amanda’, however, didn’t see light of day until it was made available by Kill Rock Stars when they reissued his debut album ‘Roman Candle’ in 2010.
‘No Confidence Man’
Part of a 1994 split single with Smith’s friend and fellow Portland musician, Pete Krebs, with whom Smith occasionally worked construction jobs in order to make ends meet. According to Krebs, the pair spent the recording session, conducted in the basement of Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss’s house, clowning around wearing masks. However, precious little of that sense of fun finds its way into the song, one of the most haunting, uncomfortable tracks he recorded, right up with ‘Needle In The Hay’. It features the same warm, intimate sound and whispered vocals of his early recordings and could slip seamlessly onto his second solo album (‘Elliott Smith’) which he would start work on shortly. The ending refrain, “You’re on it all the time”, appears to be an early example of the many ambiguous drug references that would populate his songs.
On this song, a labyrinthine melody in the verse gives way to a simple single-word chorus, delivered at first in a whisper, then in a cathartic scream, possibly the loudest the feather-voiced singer ever registered on record. The version which has leaked on the internet could do with remixing, but is still perhaps Smith’s greatest unreleased song, dealing matter-of-factly with the abuse he occasionally alleged to have suffered in his childhood. “Why does everyone know I’ve been abused now? Didn’t want it to show.” There is some speculation that the unflinching lyric led Smith’s family to deliberately leave the song off ‘From A Basement On The Hill’, although this remains, like so much about that album, just conjecture.