An Introduction To..., 180G Black Vinyl LP, Contains songs from each of Elliott Smith's 7 studio albums, Includes digital download
number of seminal musicians emerged in the 1990s and died prematurely, and sadly most of their fates were heavily foreshadowed. Both Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur spent much of their waking lives being their own best eulogizers; the Notorious B.I.G. named his debut album Ready to Die; and Jeff Buckley, to many, seemed fragile and vulnerable throughout his life. For those who spent years following his considerably quieter trajectory, so did Elliott Smith.
Where those other musicians pushed the dynamics of their chosen genres, Smith achieved his by inverse means. His real-life meekness, softness, and raw emotion never demanded or required anything as tragically operatic as cavernous reverb, barbed wire guitars, or ominous meditations on his own legacy as a musician. With the studio-produced exceptions of 1998's sublime XO and 2000's Figure 8, both funded on Dreamworks' dime, Smith's legacy was largely achieved via a house style that's about as common and as ordinary as it gets: a guy and an acoustic guitar.
Smith's hallmark, then, was his virtuosity: not just as a guitarist, though he frequently made one sound like two and two sound like four, or as a songwriter, though he rigorously engineered dazzlingly complicated chord sequences and melodies, but also in his singing, which had the singular quality of sounding hushed, hangdog, affable, and sweetly melodic all at once. His lyrics, meanwhile, alternated with conflicted ripples of wisdom, longing, and adolescent angst, the sweetness of the music often belying the sentiment underneath.
An Introduction To... is Kill Rock Stars' pitch at a Smith career primer, and although one could get caught up in questioning the need for any such anthology in the download era, it is pretty fantastically difficult to fault as a collection of songs, and KRS' intentions and target audience are clear. Ranging from Smith's relatively spotty 1994 solo debut Roman Candle (from which only one selection appears) through to " [#script:http://pitchfork.com/media/backend/js/tiny_mce/themes/advanced/langs/en.js]|||||| Miss Misery", the pivot point of his career, knowingly offered here in an early, pre-Oscar nominated incarnation, through to a few selections from New Moon, 2007's posthumous collection of vaulted odds and ends, it's more a testimony to the ferociously high quality of work that comprised Smith's catalogue than any triumph of curation.
As the song selection goes, though, An Introduction To... is as tasteful and as thorough as one could reasonably demand. As you might expect, given the title and the label, it is distinctly light on material from Smith's Dreamworks years, during which he was arguably at the peak of his powers, but it makes up for that thinness by offering up a judicious selection from Smith's indie breakthrough, 1998's Either/Or, as well as a few slightly rarer versions of fan favorites, like the single version of "Happiness" and a newly remastered version of 1997's "Last Call".
As is the way with these sorts of things, An Introduction To... will also invite the more familiar listener to play a game of soft scrutiny and reflection on what may or may not be a few sins of omission, but of course that's not really the point. The point is that there are lots of people who haven't yet had the occasion to discover Elliott Smith, and ultimately this gives them a chance to scratch away at the bittersweet reality of his work, at how conflicted he sounded, at how bitterly unresolved his career remains, and how every single song still somehow feels like both a confection and a dagger. -Pitchfork