January 04, 2006

Elliott Smith - From a Basement on the Hill

Elliott Smith held nothing back for what would come to be the last album of his career. Basement on the Hill came out after his death on October 21, 2003. The 3 years before his death, Elliott seemed to have vanished from existence. His friends hadn't heard from him and they had no way to contact him. Elliott was busy, not with his music, but busy slipping deeper into the drug problem that had become very apparent while he lived in LA. Heroin, speed, cocaine, acid, anything the man could get his hands on. Elliott moved in with his new producer David McConnell after a falling out with producer Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann). McConnell was a collector of antique recording equipment, pieces of which were famous. Some of the equipment McConnell owned was the original equipment used in recording the famous White Album from the Beatles. One of the many reasons Elliott was so attracted to the small basement in McConnells home. There Elliott stayed for years. Writing, singing, playing, recording for days on end. Elliott would take heroin and find the sound he wanted, then take enough coke and speed to keep himself awake for days until he perfected the sound he was looking for. And that sound turned out to be some of the most magical music I have ever listened to.

Basement opens with "Coast to Coast", a self-loathing song about loving someone that doesn't care about him. Its a big opener and sounds quite different from most Elliott songs. If you've listened to Elliott before, and I hope to god that you have, you'll find that this album contains both songs that sound perfect for a regular Elliott album, and then songs that sound completely different. Elliott does a lot more musically with this cd than he's done with his previous works. Not trying to take anything away from the sound that comes from Roman Candle (Elliott's first album, just him in a basement with a guitar and a 4-track), but this time around he captures a richer sound musically. Don't worry though, he still captures that same acoustic magic in his last work too. Come on, would it be an Elliott album if there wasn't a few acoustic songs that make you want to stay in bed for days? Tracks like "Fond Farewell", "Twilight", "Last Hour" and last but not least my favorite "Memory Lane" are acoustic masterpieces that hit you when you're down. If you listen to his words you can really see what sets Elliott Smith apart from the rest. His lyrics are so compound and deep, it seems like every line is a metaphor about a metaphor. Every time you listen to it you get something new out of it. What makes Basement so special is how you can hear the enormous amount of thought Elliott put into each song. "King's Crossing" is the cream of the crop, telling his heroin story in a way that makes you feel like you're in his shoes. "Shooting Star" is about a shooting down a one hit wonder girl that thinks she's quite the catch. It was written in one night by Smith and McConnell after being awake for 4 days and snorting an exorbitant amount of cocaine and sounds like they had a great time doing it. Elliott was hard pressed to get the perfect sound for every song. If you look at pictures of Elliott during the recording sessions, you can see the struggle and restlessness in his rugged face. The Last song on the album, "A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to be Free", calls out all the money bags making it big off of other peoples talent and decision makers in our society (all you ladies and you gentlemen/in between is all you've ever seen or been). Its a fitting end to an amazing album.

It's funny how Elliott's first album was recorded in a basement in Portland, somber and distant, and his last was made in a basement the exact same way. Listening to Elliott is the definition of contagious. I cant tell you how many people start with one album, cherish it, then find themselves clawing for more. Listening to the last Elliott Smith album is just as much a soul searching experience as listening to the first album. Basement on the Hill doesn't need to be sold, but if I don't say this, I wouldn't be getting the point across. Now I don't take this next phrase lightly, so take it as seriously as I'm saying it. Basement on the Hill has got to be my favorite album in my collection. Even though I don't always listen to it anymore, I always go back to it and find myself sucked right back into my uncontrollable desire to hear more Elliott. That being said, I hope you pick it up.

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