From a Basement On the Hill
Even without the back-story, From a Basement On the Hill would qualify as one of the most heart-breaking records ever made. More than just the pinnacle of Elliot Smith's troubled career, his swan song is now a plea for understanding to those left behind. It is also an unadulterated pop masterpiece. Cold comfort, of course, because there is no turning the clock back, no halting the argument between Smith and his girlfriend that wound up with her locked in a bathroom and the singer/songwriter staggering around their apartment with a knife in his heart -- a knife he allegedly put there himself.
A horrid image, yet so apt. Smith's musical persona was ultimately indistinguishable from the psychic pain of depression that bled his life and fueled his songwriting, the feeling that no matter how many friends, how many lovers, or how much success, one remains fundamentally alone in an uncaring, selfish, often stupid world.
Overwhelming resignation may be the record's lasting lyrical legacy -- Smith even sounds like he's speaking of himself in the past tense -- but the music is transcendent, from the sonic snarl of "Coast to Coast" and "Shooting Star" to the gentle miniatures like "Twilight" and "Let's Get Lost" at which Smith always excelled. "King's Crossing" and "Don't Go Down" crystallize Smith's Beatles infatuation into soaring, complex harmonies and rich guitar riffs, warm piano runs and rock-solid rhythms, and above all pitch-perfect melodies. In fact, it's uncanny at times how much like Abbey Road (without the hope) From a Basement... seems, in its unshakeable sense of purpose and sure-handed sequencing as well.
But when Smith sings on "A Fond Farewell" of a "dying man in a living room/whose shadow paces the floor/we'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," it's a true test of one's composure. It's also a visceral reminder of the cruel irony that, with sufferers of severe depression, others see their intrinsic worth when they themselves cannot. This is farewell, and you can't help mourning it as both the last and best.
Track to Burn: "Pretty (Ugly Before)"
The Tao of Yo
Perhaps this means Vernon Reid has come back to stay. After his hard-rock band Living Colour split in 1995, Reid released his first solo album, Mistaken Identity, a year later, and then disappeared, popping up only for a few guest spots. But since 2001 he's made a couple of avant-blues albums with James Blood Ulmer, recorded and toured with Living Colour, and released another solo effort this year, the excellent but unnoticed Known Unknown.
Reid also formed the Yohimbe Brothers with old friend DJ Logic. 2002's Front End Lifter was more playful, libidinous and chaotic. The Tao of Yo is still playful; the opener, "Shine for Me," has beats and vocals that would fit on a Missy Elliott song. But it's also more serious and centered. Like the first disc, this one has samples and styles galore, but they're assembled more coherently. Perhaps best of all, producers Goodandevil know Reid is one of the best players around and keep his guitar at the center of almost every song, whether it's the hard-rock "Secret Frequency," the hip-hop "More from Life," the Latin-spiced "No Pistolas," the free-jazz freak-out "Unimportance," or the ghostly "Overcoming." A better record from a more mature band.
Track to Burn: "Noh Rio"
Violence in the Snowy Fields
It's difficult this month to listen to any earnest, sad-bastard songs without acknowledging the influence that Elliott Smith had on countless sensitive souls. Dolorean's singer-songwriter Al James is yet another example. Equal parts Smith, Sebadoh and The Band, James has crafted nine sad and beautiful songs to fall apart to. Dolorean's second release, Violence in the Snowy Fields, offers a slightly more full-bodied sound than 2003's sparse Not Exotic, thanks to a larger palette of instruments (pedal steel, violin, even a full string quartet). The result is even more engaging. At times James channels Lou Barlow at his most fatalistic -- "Baby let's die at the same time" ("Dying in Time"). Meanwhile, "My Grey Life (Second Chances)," the most bruised of these battered lullabies, highlights James' unusual phrasing with the chorus -- "I believe in second chances.../for everyone.../but you," adding even more depth to this tale of jealousy and fear. That's not to say that Dolorean only treads the murky waters of indie rock (whatever that is). The title track is a rambling tribute to Music From the Big Pink-era Band, full of harmonies and laid-back jangle. Violence in the Snowy Fields offers a gentle, fragile testament to loneliness and yet somehow always remains hopeful.
Track to Burn: "Violence in the Snowy Fields"
--Tara E. Flanagan