'New Moon' shows Smith at his creative peak
The first posthumous collection of Elliott Smith songs, 2004's "From a Basement on the Hill," was a window on the turbulent last years of a gifted, tortured soul. Smith's final recordings were a gorgeous mess of aimless murmurs, bittersweet pop tunes, and ramshackle rock epics from an artist clearly and painfully in thrall to the lure of oblivion.
Now, four years after Smith's death from knife wounds (the LAPD's investigation into the circumstances remains open), a second -- and very different -- posthumous album is being released. "New Moon" is a two-disc set of songs written and recorded between 1994 and 1997, Smith's most fertile creative period. During those years he released his self-titled debut and "Either/Or" for the Kill Rock Stars label, which is also releasing "New Moon." Far from a compilation of rough mixes and rejects, any of the songs on this disc -- as spare in sound as they are elegant in form -- would have fit beautifully on a mid-'90s Elliott Smith album.
Three have been released previously, on mix tapes or compilations, and many are already in the iPod collections of intrepid file traders. None offers great surprises or insights into the artist's creative process, although an early version of "Miss Misery" (a later take was used on the "Good Will Hunting" soundtrack) and a radically different recording of "Pretty Mary K" (Smith filled hours of tape reels with multiple versions of songs) are testament to the depth and breadth of Smith's skills. With the exception of Big Star's gorgeous "Thirteen" -- a staple of Smith's live set recorded (like roughly half of these tracks) with only guitar and voice in glorious lo-fi at someone's house -- "New Moon" comprises a couple of dozen quintessential Elliott Smith songs that during a time of remarkable output simply didn't make the cut.
The package itself is intimate and informative, and will be received like manna by Smith's devotees. Liner notes include musical memories and personal anecdotes from several old friends and colleagues, an erudite and impassioned essay by classical pianist Christopher O'Riley , who released an Elliott Smith tribute album last year, and song notes from Smith's archivist and longtime mixing engineer Larry Crane , who compiled this collection. Crane was vigilant about maintaining the tracks' original integrity. He combined vocals and music from two separate takes only once, on "New Disaster," and it's explicitly noted. Otherwise the songs are presented exactly as Smith recorded them: raw, tender, and exquisitely sad and beautiful.