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Echoes of his tragic life in Smith’s last CD

'From a Basement on a Hill' gives glance at singer's psyche, plus other reviews
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's always somewhat compelling and troubling to hear from a singer after he's passed on. Already this year, we've heard Ray Charles last album, now we get a look at the dark days of Elliott Smith's life. Also reviewed this week a tribute to Warren Zevon; new releases from the long absent Camper Van Beethoven and Twisted Sister; lackluster grrrl stuff from Le Tigre; the 16th album from the Neville Brothers; and a new release from Chinese-American rapper Jin.

Elliott Smith, “from a basement on the hill”
Although signs pointed to suicide, the official cause of Elliott Smith’s death a year ago is still a mystery. That leaves the veiled confessions and snarling invectives found throughout “from a basement on the hill” prime for close inspection. Written and performed almost entirely by Smith in the years leading up to his death, the somewhat uneven songs that comprise his last studio album vividly tie Smith’s aching tenor to the circumstances, perfectly echoing the sentiment of the albums title: being high and low at the same time.

A minute and a half in, a feistier Smith rattles off the contradictory line “I’ve got no new act to amuse you,” before showcasing the record’s stylistic breadth. Ranging from sparse acoustic pop to sprawling mope rock, at times “from a basement...” comes off as not completely finished, which is somehow fitting and makes it even more devastating.

The title of closer “A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to be Free” works as a brief summation of the record’s tone. Previously released as a stripped version with alternate lyrics, it’s Smith at his most simultaneously intense and beaten, flailing diatribes like “You disappoint me” at anyone within earshot.

Despite the perceived lightness of some arrangements, this album weighs a ton. When Smith’s not trying to keep someone from using their “starving gun” or looking for “some beautiful place to get lost,” he’s consorting with a girl whose “hard and cracked as the Liberty Bell” who “sees her own body outlined in chalk.”

“Pretty (Ugly Before)’s” gorgeous melody drifts into Smith and Sam Coomes (of Quasi) harmonizing: “I felt so ugly before/ I didn’t know what to do,” undercutting the inherent dejection. The lyrics “I haven’t laughed this hard in a long time/ But better stop now before I start crying” christen the delicate “Twilight” before Smith warns of the worst: “I’m tired of being down/ I got no fight.”

“A Fond Farewell,” perhaps the prettiest song Smith ever penned, eerily cements his legacy. Seemingly written about someone else, it’s a haunting lament for someone who’s died, and not necessarily physically. Depicting “a man dying in the living room, vomiting in the kitchen sink,” and repeating (as if to convince oneself) “this is not my life/ It’s just a fond farewell to a friend/ It’s not what I’m like/ It’s just a fond farewell to a friend/ Who couldn’t get things right.” It plays as a teary goodbye to one his generations finest songwriters.—Jake O’Connell

Le Tigre, “This Island” You’d have to be deep into the current careers of former riot grrrl bands to really “get” Le Tigre and the band’s latest release “This Island.” But you’re still not getting much.

Le Tigre features ex-Bikini Kill bandmember Kathleen Hanna. But all she appears to have done is parlayed a modicum of success into a new, misguided and unfocused experiment.

Le Tigre is electronica music with punk girl vocals, and the questionable components make an awful marriage.

When the band takes audio from a 2003 anti-war protest in New York and incorporates it into a dance mix, the result is pointless sonic exploration. Hokey drum machines beats back the shouts “This is what democracy sounds like!”

The band doesn’t go the extra step and explain in song how peace is going to resonate in a post Sept. 11 world. Le Tigre’s blind repetitive call for unity rings hollow and shallow.

Other tracks depend on amplitude to no avail, as on “We’re On The Verge.” There’s so much production here, that raw rock edges are glaringly absent.

A polite clap is in order for this socially conscious effort, and the music industry could certainly use more bands like Le Tigre. But better than Le Tigre would be nice.—Ron Harris

Jin, “The Rest Is History”
Many people are keen on Miami-born rapper Jin for many reasons. He’s young, he’s Chinese-American, he’s a good freestyler. These components could translate into short-term sales, but his debut release “The Rest Is History” offers little long-term hope.

High production value courtesy of the Ruff Ryders team helps get the most out of Jin’s considerable talents. But listeners need not kid themselves for long: Jin is Eminem light, without quite the bite. How long can self-deprecating rhymes about ethnicity last? A couple at best, we soon find out.

The track “Learn Chinese” is top-notch stuff, and it’s hot when Jin pre-empts his detractors who might latch onto to ethnicity as a tool to disrespect him. “Everytime they harass me I wanna explode/ We should ride the train for free/ We built the railroad,” Jin raps on his breakout song.

But too easily he slips into formulaic, Marshall Mathers-like nasal rap. Same rhyme schemes and patterns, same contrived recklessness at times when honesty would play better.

“The Good, The Bad & The Ugly,” is a fantasy tale about a drug dealer, which Jin readily admits doesn’t come from experience. So what’s the point? What is the Jin experience we really should care about?

Hints are absent and his style is too shrouded to care deeply about.

“The Rest Is History,” is a so-so debut, and Jin is likely setting himself up for a bit of a sophomore slump.—Ron Harris

The Neville Brothers “Walkin’ in the Shadow of Life” “We been around since be-bop...we been around since the doo-wop...now we around for the hip-hop” The Neville Brothers sing on the enlivening track “Can’t Stop the Funk” the album “Walkin’ in the Shadow of Life,” their 16th album in their four-decade career.

The album has a raw youthful appeal, featuring the rapper and fellow New Orleans native B.G. Listening to the brothers’ vocals, it’s hard to imagine some of them are pushing 70; however, the wisdom in their lyrics is telling.

At times their mission seems a bit obtrusive with songs like “Junkie Child” and verses like “stop acting a fool if you want to grow old.” But aside from the overbearing moral message the album is a stunning representation of the brother’s versatility and talent dabbling in various genres. Their funky New Orleans energy is represented throughout, particularly on the title track “Walkin’ in the Shadow of Life” and “Kingdom Come.”

Styles span from the breathtaking a cappella arrangement of the traditional “Rivers of Babylon,” to the smooth R&B sounds of “Junkie Child.” The song “Brothers” showcases the sophisticated four-part harmonies the brothers are famous for, along with Aaron Neville’s angelic tenor and the silky saxophone playing of Charles Neville.

The Neville Brothers have cultivated a sound that is uniquely their own, and it continues to evolve as they take cues from the younger generations. The brothers boast they are “the professor’s of the uptown funk,” and “Walkin’ in the Shadow of Life” is a solid example of just that.—Carrie Tolles

“Still Hungry,” Twisted Sister One of the best albums in the history of heavy metal just got better. The Long Island quintet has re-recorded the entire 1984 classic “Stay Hungry” album that included their two biggest hits, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “I Wanna Rock.” But they also re-did four classic nuggets from the late ’70s and early ’80s when they were the kings of the New York area bar circuit: “Come Back,” with its pounding rhythm section; “Plastic Money,” an ode to credit card debt; “You Know I Cry” with its twin guitar attack, and “Rock ’N’ Roll Saviors,” which used to be their signature tune in the disco days.

Also included are two 1984 outtakes that weren’t finished until 2001, “Blastin’ Fast And Loud” and “Never Say Never” that alone are worth the price of the disc, even though they previously appeared on “Club Daze” CD, and the band’s 1998 reunion single, “Heroes Are Hard To Find.”

The new songs are only half the appeal: the sound quality is so much better on this remake, with meatier bass, more bashing drums and sharper guitars than the poppy 1984 version that was aimed at MTV and commercial radio.—Wayne Parry

Various Artists, “Enjoy Every Sandwich: The Songs of Warren Zevon”
Like most tribute discs, “Enjoy Every Sandwich: The Songs of Warren Zevon” is wildly uneven, with some transcendent moments alongside some mind-numbing head scratchers.

Particularly pleasing are live offerings by Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen on “Mutineer” and “My Ride’s Here,” respectively, and Zevon’s son Jordan’s take on the previously unreleased nugget “Studebaker.”

But then there’s Adam Sandler doing Zevon’s most well-known song, “Werewolves of London.” Why did anyone ever think that would be a good idea?

It’s not that Sandler ruins the song: He actually sings it straightforward with no ad-libbing, but it stings of what could have been. Surely a more talented peer of Zevon’s could have had a shot at it and done far better.

Equally perplexing is Billy Bob Thornton’s throaty croak of the previously unreleased Zevon composition “The Wind.” Thornton was friends with Zevon, but that doesn’t mean he can sing.

The Wallflowers, featuring another Dylan (Jakob), turn the entire project upside down with the most rollicking song on the set, “Lawyers, Guns and Money.”

They do justice to the song, but it leaves the listener looking for equally pleasing versions of other Zevon classics that are missing like “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” and “Excitable Boy.”

Maybe those will wait for the next tribute.—Scott Bauer

Camper Van Beethoven, “New Roman Times”
Pitch the tent, the original Camper Van Beethoven is back, and it’s about time, too.

The band has reunited after a long practice session on the road; it consists of the same lineup that brought the 1980s the first truly inspired blend of the punk DIY ethos crafted with ska, folk and more, and resulted in indie classics like “Take the Skinheads Bowling” and “Where the Hell is Bill?”

Their new recording, “New Roman Times,” is an amalgam of the band’s stylings and conscience from its previous outings, including “Telephone Free Landslide Victory” to the pop of “Key Lime Pie.”

But this disc, the band’s seventh, is a Camper Van LP like no other — a 67-minute rock opera set in a future America where California and Texas are separate countries and political and religious polarities are entrenched.

The disc tells the story of a soldier from the Fundamentalist Christian Republic of Texas and his journey through fighting, self-awareness, space aliens and blowing up a disco, too.

That may be difficult material for any other band, but for Camper Van Beethoven, led by David Lowery (who formed Cracker), Victor Krummenacher, Greg Lisher, Jonathan Segel, Chris Pedersen and David Immergluck, it’s old hat.

From the country-oriented psychedelia of “That Gum You Like is Back in Style” to the Tejano-laden “Los Tigres Traficantes,” the album is a wildly chaotic platter, but in that chaotic way that results in rich hooks, strong tempo and pleasant feelings.

“New Roman Times” is both a primer for new fans and a return to form for original ones, too.—By Matt Moore