Just a week shy of the second anniversary of Elliott Smith’s death, a bounty of unreleased material — including tracks from the sessions for the singer/songwriter’s final LP, From a Basement on the Hill — has leaked online.
The 22 tracks are being circulated under the title From a Basement on the Hill II and are purported to be songs dropped from the LP. However, much of the material is believed to date from long before the album’s sessions, some of it going back as far as the mid-’90s. Charlie Ramirez, Webmaster for the official Smith site SweetAdeline.net, says, “I think some of them might have been considered for Basement, but not necessarily.”
Smith died from an apparent suicide on October 21, 2003 (“Singer/Songwriter Elliott Smith Dead; Friends, Fellow Musicians Pay Tribute” ).
Originally conceived as a double album, Basement was ultimately released in October 2004 as a single 15-track LP (“Elliott Smith’s Final Album Due In October” ). According to a publicist for Smith, 34 songs were recorded during the album’s lengthy sessions, although various interviews and accounts put the figure closer to 50 tracks.
Ascertaining an exact number may not be possible, since Smith began recording the album in 2001 and its sessions spanned a troubled period for the singer, during which he descended into drug abuse and virtually disappeared from the music world before recovering. He was tweaking and recording songs for the album right up until his death.
According to Ramirez, tracks that are definitely outtakes from Basement sessions include “Abused,” “The Worst Part Is Almost Over” and possibly “High Times,” “New Disaster” and “Riot Coming.” Other leaked tracks like “Placeholder,” “See My City Dead” and “Georgia” date from the Either/Or era (1996-97). Much of the leaked material is in Smith’s traditional folk mode, though “Abused” explodes suddenly with rockist tendencies and features the lyric “You feel bruised now/ Body and mind/ You feel used now almost all of the time.”
Basement was originally to be produced by Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Kanye West), who played on both X/O and 2000’s Figure 8. But according to Benjamin Nugent’s 2004 unauthorized biography, “Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing,” the sessions ground to a halt when Brion could no longer tolerate Smith’s spiraling drug abuse. Smith himself alluded to this in his last interview, which appeared in the Los Angeles-based magazine Under the Radar, where he said the early Basement sessions had been scrapped because of a botched friendship.
While Smith’s family asked longtime producer Rob Schnapf and Smith’s ex-girlfriend Joanna Bolme to put together the final version of Basement, producer Dave McConnell — who recorded more than half of the songs that appeared on the released album — said he was disappointed that he wasn’t asked to participate. He said he’d kept “about three years’ worth of notes” regarding Smith’s plans for the material’s mixing and presentation, but was never asked for them. He notes that “Ostrich & Chirping,” a whimsical instrumental that appears on the album, was actually performed by him, not Smith, and was probably not meant for inclusion on the record.
“I think it was one of those situations where the family was so sad and taken down by the loss of their son that I think they wanted to work with somebody they knew,” McConnell said, referring to Schnapf and Bolme. “Somebody that would be there emotionally as well as doing the work … and I can’t say I blame them, really.”
According to McConnell and Nugent, three songs were removed from the proposed final version of From a Basement on the Hill at the family’s behest, presumably for their lyrical content: “Abused,” “Suicide Machine” and another track.
In response to the inevitable question about how Smith might have felt about the released version of Basement, McConnell said, “I think maybe after a long fight and kicking and screaming for a few weeks, he might have acquiesced. I don’t think he would have delivered [that] record. The record he would have delivered would had more songs, would have had different mixes and [been] a little more in your face.”
The number of reported Basement outtakes extends into double digits and includes still-unreleased songs like the rocking “Mr. Good Morning,” the intimate “From a Poisoned Well,” “Dancing on the Highway,” the driving instrumental “See You in Heaven” and “True Love,” a track McConnell said was recorded with Brion.
Smith’s material has been in the headlines quite frequently in recent months. His covers of Big Star’s “Thirteen” and Cat Stevens’ “Trouble” — the latter is believed to be one of the last songs he completed before his death — were released on the “Thumbsucker” soundtrack (see “Elliott Smith, Polyphonics Bring Balance To ’Thumbsucker’ Soundtrack” ), and pianist Christopher O’Riley is recording an album of Smith songs.
Additionally, a tribute album called To: Elliott From: Portland due in February, was recently announced and features Smith covers by Portland, Oregon-based artists including the Decemberists, the Thermals, Swords, the Helio Sequence, Eric Matthews and Sean Croghan.
Croghan covers “High Times,” a song that, up until the recent leak, few people had ever heard. “After Elliott died, I spent a lot of time listening to these tapes he had given me of various recordings he made at home,” Croghan says in the album’s liner notes. ” ’High Times’ hit me like a brick in the face.” Matthews’ performance is based on the original arrangement of “Needle in the Hay” (which he played on), which included horns, harmonica and drums before Smith scaled it down to the voice-and-guitar version on his self-titled sophomore disc.
At press time, a spokesperson for Smith’s estate had no comment about the leaked tracks.
Track list for To: Elliott From: Portland, according to a publicist for the compilation:
- The Decemberists – “Clementine”
- Helio Sequence – “Satellite”
- The Thermals – “Ballad of Big Nothing”
- Crosstide – “Angeles”
- Amelia – “Between the Bars”
- Dolorean – “The Biggest Lie”
- Sexton Blake – “Rose Parade”
- Swords – “I Didn’t Understand”
- Sean Croghan – “High Times”
- Lifesavas – “Happiness”
- Jeff Trott - “Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud?”
- Society of People of Ambiance and Elegance – “Speed Trials”
- To Live and Die in L.A. – “King’s Crossing”
- We Are Telephone – “Division Day”
- Eric Matthews – “Needle in the Hay”
For a feature on the last days of Elliott Smith, see “Elliott Smith: One of Us Is On The Moon.”