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Elliott Smith – From A Basement On The Hill

From a Basement on a Hill is a fitting goodbye to the fans that found solace in his words and a home in his music

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How does a fan review the final album of their favorite artist? I don’t know how people could do without losing their senses, so in order to keep me sane for the next week or so I will be writing this review with as much responsibility to the reader as humanly possible. Of course some of you may think that my review is somewhat biased and I can’t lie and say that it won’t be, but I’ll try my hardest to represent this album as truthfully as my little heart can.

Here’s the back story: Once upon a time there was this artist named Elliott Smith. He played in a little rock band named Heatmiser until he emerged as a solo artist. His solo career took off and one by one his albums were embraced by his ever growing fan base. Though never fully recognized by mainstream media, except for his Academy Award nominated “Miss Misery,” Smith continued to produce music that was not only technically amazing but extremely touching to anyone who would take the time to listen to it. His music was the window into his troubled lifestyle and in turn, his music was the doorway to his listeners’ inner feelings and thoughts. A year ago on October 21st, Elliott Smith was found dead in his apartment. He left behind an abundance of songs and From A Basement On The Hill is the album he was working on when he met his untimely death. With the help of his family and friends, the work was completed and released for those of us that needed one piece of closure- something more than a few words of sympathy from a distant person. This is his final goodbye, even though he may have never intended it to be.

From A Basement On The Hill begins with a long silence that soon breaks with the quiet beginning of “Coast to Coast.” The subtle beginning soon fades as the percussions kick in and his electric guitar spurts in the melody. As Smith’s familiar voice falls in, the first song of his last album finally seems to start. His trademark barely-there, whisper-like yet oddly strong and forceful voice sings; “And if you can’t help then just leave it alone, leave it alone, leave it alone, yeah just forget it,” with such a detached yet emotional (if that’s even possible) feel that it brought a sense of sadness and hope to this listener. The next track, “Let’s Get Lost,” is classic Elliott Smith- with solitary acoustics and his voice alone making this track a gorgeous example of how he could take two simple instruments and turn two minutes and twenty-seven seconds into something stunningly beautiful.

Most of these songs are familiar to his fans because in the few years before his death and after the release of 2000’s Figure 8, Smith toured and previewed acoustic versions of these songs. “Pretty (ugly before),” “Strung Out Again,” “A Fond Farewell,” “A Passing Feeling,” “Shooting Star,” and “A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free” were all staples in his live shows and now here they are in what we’re told is their completed form. While some of these tracks remain pretty consistent with the live, acoustic versions (such as “A Fond Farewell,” “Pretty (ugly before)”, and “A Passing Feeling”), others employ more guitar riffs and a harder edge than that of their previous incarnations. The most dramatic shift in direction has to be “Shooting Star,” which instead of the delicate acoustic guitar now has blaring electrics which seems too abrasive for Smith’s voice and lyrics. This was the only disappointment I had with the album. I found the music of “Shooting Star” uneven when compared to Smith’s voice. The words he sings seem to come out of nowhere while the music (which up until that point was blaring and in-your-face) immediately slows down enough to catch up with his slow and gentle voice. As soon as the vocals stop, the abrasive music rushes to catch up making this track seem a little less like something Smith would have composed himself and a little more like something that was put together by those working on his album after his death.

“King’s Crossing” employs some of the prettiest music of the entire album. After the lyrics “I can’t prepare for death anymore than I already have” there is this emotional and overpowering swell of instruments which only continues to grow as the song continues. Smith’s voice displays a sense of urgency and calm restraint despite the uneasiness of the music and the lyrics. As a fan I can’t listen to “Twilight” and “Last Hour” without trying my hardest not to cry. It isn’t the lyrics that get me, despite their astounding quality, but the closeness I felt while listening to those songs. It felt as though he was closer to the listener in these songs then in any of the other tracks. “Twilight” a.k.a. “Somebody’s Baby” is stunningly intense and quietly heartbreaking. Once again its just Mr. Smith armed with an acoustic guitar and his impeccable voice. He can evoke emotion from the emptiest shells with the simplest of words and strum of his guitar; and he does so within this track. “Last Hour” has Smith’s voice taking the stage as the lead. His voice has a tiny tremble in it as he sings lyrics such as, “I’ll be staying down where no one else is gonna give me grief.” With this song it felt as though it was just Smith and I listening. His ability to take one out of the busyness of life and take them into solitary is something I haven’t seen in any of the singer songwriters currently in the market.

The album ends with a track that was officially released as a different version before this album came out. “A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free” was released as a B-Side to a 7” single but with everything in life, its simplicity changed. On this album it’s faster than any of the other versions and boasts a smooth guitar melody that wasn’t present before. Smith’s voice seems to lift this tale of pessimism up to this almost hopeful place of solitude. This, his last track, seems to symbolize everything he produced; despite being largely considered sad and depressing his music contained the most hopeful and uplifting music I’ve heard in awhile.

Despite some of the seemingly prophetic lyrical content, Elliott Smith didn’t set out to create his final album when he began writing the songs that now comprise this album. And while this may not be considered his greatest work, it is a fitting goodbye to the fans that found solace in his words and a home in his music. I sit here listening to the piano melody of “A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free” fade into silence and I know that this is what I’ve been fearing for the last year, this is the regretful end of my favorite artist’s career and even though I’m filled with a sadness I can’t begin to explain, I can’t help thinking what a beautiful end it was.

(Anti-)

Interviews

Like a Hurricane: An Interview with Year of the Fist

Year of the Fist are a much needed short in the arm of rock music. We chat to vocalist/guitarist Squeaky.

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Oakland based rock n’ roll band Year of the Fist are the kind of the rock n’ roll band you can’t bring home to meet mom. Evoking the sounds made famous by labels like Sympathy for the Record Industry, Year of the Fist are “a hurricane of swirling rock n’ roll poundage”. Unrelenting and visceral, their music is the unforgiving wave in a sea of safe rock music; a sentiment best exemplified by their brand new full-length album, Revive Me. And like the title itself, Year of the Fist are a much-needed shot of energy; raw, no-frills, and urgent.

We caught up with guitarist and vocalist Squeaky, who, along with the band, have just returned from a short trek through California and Nevada to showcase their new album. We talk about the history of the band, their fantastic new record, Oakland, small-town shows, and rock n’ roll.

Congrats on the new record- reception has been positive to it (we loved it)- how do you all feel?

We are all very happy with the way the album turned out. The last year and a half working on felt like an eternity but it’s done and I am stoked.

How did the writing and recording for the record go? It sounds fantastic- did you self-produce or work with someone in the studio?

The album is self-produced and the recording was a multi-step and studio process.  We were lucky to work in some amazing studios with some terrific engineers.

Do you have a favorite song from the new record? Or maybe one you all love playing live in particular?

I believe I can speak for everyone when I say “Ghosts” is one of our favorites off this album to play live. And speaking for myself, “Red Lights Flash” is another one I really like playing. 

Revive Me is your third full length; what were some of the things you wanted to get done with this record- things maybe you learned from the two LPs prior?

It is actually of 2nd full length. In between the two, we released a 4 song EP.  To be honest, I always have an idea in my head on how I am going to approach something and it never works that way. There is always a curveball, an emotion, a gut feeling that pulls you a different direction. So I am trying to get better at going into something with no direction to be honest ….. we’ll see how that works out.

You are based in Oakland- are you guys all from the area and how did Year of the Fist come together?

Our lead guitarist, Katie, is the only member from the Bay Area. I am from the East Coast. Our drummer, Hal, is from the Mid-West and our bassist, Serge, is from Russia. Hal & I met on tour in different bands, I believe sometime in 2006. He lived in Washington and I was in California. Hal eventually moved down to Oakland and we started YOTF in 2011. We anticipated it being a 2 piece band but after writing the first few songs we knew that wasn’t going to be the case. I knew Katie from playing shows throughout the Bay Area,  so she jumped on board, then skip ahead 8 years, we found our bassist, Serge. We played with several bass players over the years but now I feel we have found our fit. Serge was one of us within minutes of meeting him.

Do you remember what your first experience with rock n’ roll was? Was it a show, something on the radio, a record, or a band?

I was raised in a rock n roll household so I don’t recall a 1st experience, my upbringing was the experience. As far as going to punk shows, I was living in Richmond, VA and I went to my first punk show at 12 or 13. I was immediately drawn to the energy. I was already playing guitar but after seeing a hundred punks packed into a tiny, sweaty club and feeding off the energy coming off the stage I knew I wanted to be the one on the stage.

What makes Oakland a good place for a rock n’ roll band? Is it the venues, the community?

Oakland has its ups and down with good punk venues to be honest. It seems we will have a ton of good rock venues for a few years and then it takes a nosedive for a few years. It’s tricky like that. Oakland is such a diverse city it keeps every band from being full of a bunch of white straight men. It’s a breath of fresh air.

And some of you pull double duty in multiple bands?

We sure do. Hal & I are in a 2 piece rock band called Cut-Rate Druggist while Katie has a solo project that goes by her name, Katie Cash, and a rock/funk band called Skip The Needle. Serge is the only smart one by not burning the candle at both ends.

You played a bunch of shows in July- across California and then to Nevada- what are some of the things you enjoy most about being able to play these songs live?

We just wrapped up that quick 4-day run and it was terrific. There is nothing like seeing people singing the words you wrote, seeing their body move to a particular part in a song that makes your body move the same way, to have someone tell you how much a song means to them. It is so therapeutic. It is the best shrink that I have ever had.

I used to live in Stockton; it was a tough place when I lived there. But it was always exciting to know bands stopped by (when they did)- how important it is to you guys to find new cities and towns to play in each tour?

Really? You lived in Stockton? What a small world!! 

I really enjoy playing smaller cities/towns. The crowd isn’t as jaded as big cities. I don’t mean that as an insult, hell, I am probably one of those jaded people. Living in a big city you can see awesome local and touring bands any day of the week, it gets taken for granted. When you go to a smaller city that has 2, maybe 1 rock show a month, people appreciate that you drove 4-6 hours to get there.

What are the plans for Year of the Fist for the rest of the year and beyond?

We have some light US touring in the fall along with playing FEST in Gainesville, FL. And maybe getting some rest!

Year of the Fist’s new album Revive Me is available now via Heart On Records.

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Reviews

Pretty Vicious – Beauty of Youth

Beauty of Youth is what happens when raw talent and a knack for writing great songs finds itself surviving the hype

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Pretty Vicious

The perils of industry hype and stardom have been unforgiving for many young bands. The brutal nature of the rock n’ roll whirlwind is both an inescapable thrill, and the overdose that has claimed the scalp of many. Welsh rock band Pretty Vicious are no stranger to the often destructive nature of record label glory and lofty expectations. The band members were mere teens (15-17) when they signed their mega-deal with Virgin EMI in 2015. What followed was a roller coaster ride of failed recording sessions and the burden of unmet expectations that come with signing big-money deals at such a young age. But the remarkable truth is, Pretty Vicious seem to have come out of the industry slog having survived their initial foray into the fire with an album that is quite a remarkable achievement.

Initially touted as the “next Oasis”, Pretty Vicious have thankfully shunned that tag and done away with writing the next Definitely Maybe for something more visceral. Beauty of Youth is what happens when raw talent and a knack for writing great songs finds itself surviving the hype. If Beauty Of Youth is a record signaling Pretty Vicious’ convalescence after their initial break down, then please, feed this medicine to all the bands.

There is no Oasis, but rather the furious, feverish unpredictability of rock music that we had seen with early Biffy Clyro, early Idlewild, packed with the dangerous uncertainty that came with The Libertines. It’s immediate too; from the raucous riff-heavy opener “These Four Walls” to the vagabond “What Could’ve Been”, much of the album channels frenzied palettes of distortion and beautiful noise. “Force of Nature” is a little Josh Homme, while “Someone Just Like You” is what Dave Grohl sounds like when he’s trying, but the album’s best moment is perhaps the gorgeous, slow-burning “Playing With Guns”. A song that’s composed of great wistful melodies that slowly incinerate the ears with infectious songwriting that makes Beauty Of Youth sound massive while being personal at the same time.

You can’t go past songs like “Move”, with its buzzsaw guitars and wall of energy, without thinking of all the best rock bands we’ve heard over the past decade. It’s got it all- to a T- but its urgency and hectic nature make it feel all the better. “Something Worthwhile” has got the bright lights and big stages of Glastonbury written all over it. And while their 2015 stint at the festival saw them on the “Introducing…” stage, this song is headlining main stage material.

It is quite an achievement to be as accomplished as Pretty Vicious at such a young age. Even more remarkable that they’ve survived the industry machine to release such a damn good debut album. Beauty of Youth is a composed, compelling, high energy debut that answers the question, “what became of the likely lads?”. They went on to write one of, if not the best, rock records of 2019.

(Big Machine / John Varvatos Records)

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