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Elliott Smith

An Introduction to... Elliott Smith

[Kill Rock Stars / Domino; 2010]

By ; October 12, 2010 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

I elected to review An Introduction to… Elliott Smith because like so many disillusioned teenagers, Elliott Smith’s music connected with me on a level matched by few contemporary artists. And that, I believe, is the key to its longevity; even his most intimate, quiet songs carry with them the consciousness of shared experience. Elliott Smith fans have countless stories of discovering his music, but our love of his work essentially boils down to the same sad admiration of an artist whose inner torments were at once revealed and masked by his often gorgeous melodies and heartbreaking instrumentation. His barest acoustic tracks and his most embellished, later output alike sound fragile and helpless, musical confidence aside.

But then it hit me that I wasn’t sure exactly how to approach this album. Is “introduction” synonymous with “best-of”? Is this a greatest hits release, so to speak? After all, the best (and easiest) way to become acquainted with an artist’s work is to listen to its greatest moments; hit singles serve as accessible, familiar entryways to the stranger, darker, or less immediately palatable songs that make up every musician’s back catalog.

Similarly, I wonder how comprehensive this Introduction is supposed to be. After all, Kill Rock Stars and Domino Records aren’t pretending that these selected tracks span Smith’s brief but dense career; a recent a press release reveals that they’re releasing this compilation in the hopes of “providing a pathway for people to delve more deeply into his immensely satisfying catalogue.” It seems to me that the most appropriate way to judge An Introduction to…Elliott Smith is on its own terms—is this truly a worthy introduction to a man to whom tribute has been posthumously paid by such high-profile acts as Rilo Kiley and Ben Folds?

Well, that depends on just which Elliott Smith you’re talking about. The guy who penned Roman Candle is not the same musician as the guy who recorded Figure 8, and the progression from sparse guitar whispers to more elaborate, high-fidelity productions is the defining characteristic of Smith’s career arc. But this Introduction consists almost exclusively of the former. Of fourteen tracks, five come from Either/Or while another three hail from the early lo-fi years of Roman Candle and its self-titled followup. This collection covers its sad-man-with-a-guitar bases, to be sure, but it does so at the expense of Smith’s equally emotional, lush tracks.

I mean, after five Either/Or cuts, do we really need to hear the “early” (read: quieter and acoustic) version of “Miss Misery”? And while I understand Domino’s desire to include each of Smith’s releases, “Angel In The Snow,” with its fade-in guitar and repeated lyrics, sounds too similar to “Alameda” to justify including both here. Speaking of questionable inclusions, I can’t help but think that “Ballad Of Big Nothing” wasn’t the best choice to start off the album; Smith’s career was mared by periods of mental breakdown, drug abuse, and emotional anguish, but “Big Nothing” feels like an especially cynical start to a retrospective of an artist who was (sadly) already cynical enough to commit suicide.

Still, these are all great Elliott Smith songs, and it’s not that I think that a few of them don’t deserve to be here; it’s just that with such limited space on the album, I’d think that variety would trump a focus on just one aesthetic.

Which leads me to my biggest problem with this collection: XO, largely considered to be Smith’s most ambitious and seminal work—the album that marked the beginning of his embellished sonic explorations—is represented by but one song here, the masterful “Waltz #2.” We all have our own favorite Elliott Smith songs, but seriously: no “Bottle Up and Explode”? No “Oh well, OK”? Hell, they left off “Pitseleh,” which despite being another largely acoustic track would have been a welcome inclusion here. “I was bad news for you, just because…I never meant to hurt you” sums up Smith’s romantic mindset in just two lines. I could have done without one of the From A Basement tracks if it meant getting another XO song or two on here.

That said, it’s difficult to condemn this collection for being anything but too brief. Merely, I think that a double album—or at least a few more tracks—would have been better suited to the oeuvre of so many listeners’ understated, bitter hero.


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