Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Elliott Smith: An Introduction to...

Originally published by PopMatters on November 4, 2010

Historically, “hits” packages like An Introduction to Elliott Smith are enough to make the fans go apoplectic. “What possible purpose could this serve?” the devotee might derisively ask. Well, face it, pal: There was a time when you didn’t know who Elliott Smith was either.

Another fellow troubled troubadour, Nick Drake, had his previous work compiled numerous times posthumously, with the greatest critical and commercial success 1994’s Way to Blue. The compilation deftly managed to weave songs together to form not only a true representation of the expanse of Drake’s work, but also a cohesive album that served as more than just a simple collection of randomly selected songs. An Introduction to… attempts to do for the music of Elliott Smith what Way to Blue did for Nick Drake, though it inevitably comes up short by comparison.

For a start, Smith’s back catalogue is far more expansive than Drake’s. Smith released five albums before his sad death in 2003, with two more following, including 2007’s New Moon, a two-disc set. An Introduction to… draws from each of these, though some receive far more attention than others. Smith’s two albums for DreamWorks Records—XO and Figure 8—are represented by just one song apiece, as is Roman Candle, his first solo release. Conversely, nearly half of Either/Or is here with five tracks, and Elliott SmithFrom a Basement on the Hill, and New Moon are each represented with a pair of entries.

It’s difficult to know whether the tracklisting was purely a judgment call or if legal snags kept the DreamWorks material from making more of an appearance. And what’s the rationale for the inclusion of an early version of “Miss Misery” rather than the Oscar-nominated take from the soundtrack to Good Will Hunting?

Herein lies the peril faced by any compiler of a beloved artist with an extensive canon: What belongs and what doesn’t? Are you trying to tell a story, give an impression of the artistic avenues that artist traveled, or just move units? Will the fans be bummed out by the lack of obscure numbers, and will those maybe coming to an artist a little late in the game find the selection accessible enough to lead to further exploration? If you can’t please everyone, who are you going to focus on?

If, as the press release indicates, An Introduction to… is meant to serve as a teaser for the music of Elliott Smith, it doesn’t really get the job done. There’s no denying the delicate, damaged brilliance of the songs chosen, but the same could be said of so much that was left on the cutting room floor. By largely overlooking certain periods and giving comparatively heavy attention to others, Kill Rock Stars haven’t provided the listener with enough of a balanced overview for a successful introductory compilation.

That’s certainly not to say the release isn’t valid. There will undoubtedly be listeners coming to the album unfamiliar with Smith and finding the stark intimacy of “Between the Bars”, “Alameda”, or “Needle in the Hay” very much to their liking. “Ballad of Big Nothing” is a pretty terrific album opener (it came third on Either/Or in 1997), and “Waltz #2 (XO)” is a splendid follow-up. And that’s where An Introduction to… is tripped up. Smith’s debt to glorious Beatle-esque pop music was as much a part of his DNA as solemn emotional forays into the depths of the soul, but they’re underrepresented here.

An Introduction to… may well lead new listeners to Smith’s back catalogue, but hopefully they won’t stop where the compilation does. Smith’s entire recorded works are worth exploring, even those not technically independent releases.

6 out of 10