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Elliott Smith
From A Basement On The Hill

Elliott Smith wrote a lot of sad songs in his short career, before his sad, short life was abruptly aborted last October by a presumed — and horribly apropos — self-inflicted stab wound to the heart. None compare to those compiled for the rough-edged, posthumous collection From a Basement on the Hill: the familiar, feathery finger-picking on "Let's Get Lost" masking an anti-anthem of dark and devastating helplessness; "The Last Hour" hiding nothing as it carries Smith's death wish on a slight, slightly dissonant frame, constructed with unpredictable minor-key chord progressions borrowed from Abbey Road, the artist's longtime favored muse.

Perhaps saddest of all, there's the near-sickly self-deprecation of "Pretty (Ugly Before)," its strange, satisfied lyrics and reflective tone now serving as a musical suicide note to Smith's many devotees. "I felt so ugly before," he sings over an orchestral backing of piano-led instrumentation, pouring out his fragile psyche with the concession, "I didn't know what to do."

Anyone with the inclination (and a familiarity with Kazaa or Limewire) heard most of these warning signs years ago, as barroom versions streaming out in stripped-down, scratchy MP3; thus for hardcore fans, this record will hit with the uncomfortable comfort of an abusive spouse, a sting not nearly remedied by the payoff of a final fleshing-out.

Casuals can revel once more in Smith's unrivaled melodic gifts, doled out here in droves: "A Fond Farewell" offers up the album's most assured structure with a lovely strummed, four-chord guitar ballad, while the venomous "King's Crossing" contains Smith's trickiest wordplay, hideous visions dancing disturbingly over an ominous kick-drum crescendo ("It's Christmas time and the needles on the tree/ A skinny Santa's bringing something to me").

The painful clarity of these lyrics seems to be missing from many of …Hill's arrangements, however; unlike the crystalline, cresting either/or — in retrospect, the clear zenith of Elliott Smith's six-album recording career — this final record is neither focused nor infallible, instead a rarer glimpse at a man whose creative doorways, once the source of so much hope and inspiration, had become outnumbered by his demons.

by Noah Bonaparte

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