When what’s been commonly referred to as the Basement II tapes (a reference to Elliott Smith’s posthumous release, From a Basement on the Hill, 2004) were leaked onto the Internet a couple years ago, Elliott Smith fans gobbled them up; delighted that there could still be something ‘new’ to hear by this departed genius—if not complete or well-recorded. Those Basement II sessions, many actually recorded over a decade ago as throwaway tracks from the self-titled and Either/Or albums, were very rough and even incomplete, and Elliott probably would have cringed to know of their distribution. Still, fans embraced them as some of the most powerful stuff he’d written. It makes one wonder: maybe they were too raw, too full of emotion for Elliott to have been completely comfortable with them on his CDs?
Kill Rock Stars’ fantastic double-disc, New Moon includes many of these songs, and more. They’re cleaned up from the Web-leaked versions and an absolute joy to hear—essential to any Elliott Smith fan’s CD collection. Even if you’ve got the files downloaded, you’ll want to own the packaging for the great liner notes. The introduction explains the title, and how the moon is a recurring image throughout so many of Elliott’s songs, as explained by Elliott from an interview quote that launches us into the accompanying booklet. Then, there are wonderful memories, tributes and analyses of the accompanying work by mixing engineer and archivist of Smith’s estate, Larry Crane; friends and former musical partners Rebecca Gates, Sam Coomes, and Sean Croghan; and the terrific Christopher O’Riley, whose orchestrated much of Elliott’s oeuvre. In fact, the details of each recording, and the picture of Elliott as a little blond-haired boy holding a KISS album, is worth the price of the CD all by itself.
Some tracks on the CD are fully fleshed-out with a band, such as “High Times,” and “New Monkey.” Others are more like demos and delicate, artful sketches, such as “Angel in the Snow,” and “Whatever (Folk Song in C).” But they’ve all got that raw, intimate edge in common that permeated Elliott Smith’s music and then leaked into the hearts and minds of everyone who heard it—especially during that extremely creative period of 1994-1997. There’s not a bad track on it. At worst, New Moon is fascinating. At best, it’s mind-blowing.
Elliott’s mega-fans will also be deliriously happy to follow the development of songs such as “Pretty Mary K” (which turned out to be something completely different from the original) and delighted with the alternate lyrics; especially those to the Oscar-nominated, “Miss Misery,” – which feel smarter, more piercing, and a little less friendly to the mainstream ear than the version everyone else knows. Bluesy songs like “Georgia, Georgia” almost hurt to hear its passion—and you can’t get enough. And for those who missed picking up the Thumbsucker soundtrack, you’ve now got a legitimate, studio version of his terrific cover of Big Star’s “Thirteen.” If you don’t know it, you’ll cry at its simple beauty. Seriously.
I guess this writer’s only complaint is that there are still great Elliott Smith songs we’ve heard on bootlegs that weren’t included, such as “Some Song,” “Amanda Cecelia,” “No More,” and “I Don’t Think I’m Ever Gonna Figure It Out.” In any case, the New Moon CD feels like a full, complete album; not a bunch of outtakes. It leaves one gasping at the realization: was Smith in fact, so good that his throwaways were also genius? This album shouts the answer: YES!
When Elliott Smith left us so tragically in October of 2003, we thought we would never hear any more music from him again. We’ve been proven wrong three times now, in varying recorded qualities—but it’s all been brilliant. It’s hard to believe, after these 24 songs, that there’s enough unreleased stuff left to make another album of any listening quality. But with an artist like Elliott Smith, one never knows. Here’s hoping…