New Moon

Elliott Smith

Kill Rock Stars / Domino Records, 2007

REVIEW BY: Sarah Curristan

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/13/2009

Something as delicately balanced as the acoustic song is dangerous to attempt. It’s got to sound simplistic without being too simple; heartfelt without bordering on uncomfortably trite; find a balance between melody and vocals while at the same time coming in around the three-minute mark. In venturing into the arena of no frills, it’s easy to fall prey to the just plain banal (see James Morrison). It’s a lot of work for a medium so overly worked.

The back catalogue of Elliott Smith plays out like a portfolioed testament of his versatility. Albums such as his debut Roman Candle, the self-titled Elliott Smith and Either/Or cemented his typical acoustic style, while Smith’s fourth release XO marked a departure from this expected style of folk, seeming almost unfittingly heavy in comparison. Figure 8, the last album to be released before Smith’s death in 2003, went in the direction of piano folk, another niche that seemed ever so slightly unsuited. 2007 saw the release of my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 New Moon, a two-disc posthumous collection of unreleased material by the songwriter.

New Moon, with its fitting title, circles back to the bare sound of early Elliott Smith, with many of the tracks taken from sessions for his Either/Or album.

“High Times” is probably one of the most haunting moments on the album, eerily brimming with disdain and melancholy in the vein of Smith’s earlier “Needle In The Hay.” The song is built up through verses of whispered vocals and palpitating strums before meeting a crescendo of symbols and the layered screams of a whispered chorus. A cover of Big Star’s ballad of adolescent love “Thirteen” provides the closing track for the first disc of the album. Sung in such childlike delicacy by Smith, it’s hard not to believe that the song is not his own.

The second disc of the album seems more experimental than the formulaic style encountered on the first, like the organ-centred and the use of sleigh bells on “Seen How Things Are Hard.” “Almost Over” showcases Smith’s habits of complex picking style. Its tense guitar matched with the lyrics “an iron will to walk the walk / And a glass jaw that can’t be moved to talk / Black eyes always watch the clock / The worst part’s almost over” creating something dark, anxious and frantic.

New Moon lives up to the standards set by Smith’s earlier work; many of the tracks could easily have been included on their respective albums without breaking stride, but as a whole, the album fails to cohere as well as its predecessors. To be fair, this may only be seen as a drawback if you’re as pedantic as me and haughtily fly the flag for those in the camp of “Albums should be Albums.”

The idea of pressing together songs that were left behind to begin with doesn’t always sound so promising, but this disc safely ensures that some great material from such an impressive artist hasn’t slipped through the cracks. Obviously the album doesn’t prove the best introduction to Elliott Smith, but it shouldn’t disappoint those already familiar.

Rating: B

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© 2009 Sarah Curristan and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Kill Rock Stars / Domino Records, and is used for informational purposes only.