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Carefully piecing together Elliott Smith's final vision

June 22, 2004|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

Elliott Smith stares down from the shelf above the recording studio mixing board, comically bugging his eyes in one snapshot, glowering like the moody troubadour of legend in another.

The photos make the control room of the Hollywood studio feel a little like a shrine to the singer-songwriter, whose troubled life ended violently last October when he died from a knife wound in his Echo Park apartment at age 34. (Initially reported as a suicide, the case is now officially under investigation.)

Eight months later, Smith's valedictory work is taking its final shape in the same studio where he recorded much of the material on his most popular albums, 1998's "XO" and its 2000 follow-up, "Figure 8."

"Songs From a Basement on the Hill" is the album Smith had nearly completed when he died, and the work is being awaited by his cult of fans like a lost sacred text.

They probably won't be disappointed, judging by the sound of the propulsive folk reverie coming through the speakers. Smith's acoustic guitar picking eases down a scale, cradling his unmistakable, high-pitched voice as it sings a rueful couplet: "Burning every bridge that I cross / To find some beautiful place to get lost."

This is prime Smith, with the kind of meticulous, evocative lyric, bittersweet melody and intimate delivery that made him one of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters of his generation.

"Let's Get Lost" and the album's other songs have just undergone their final mixing, one more step in a painstaking construction process that was part detective work and part instinct.

"We're trying to respect whatever we can find out about what his wishes were, trying to make the record that he was making," says Rob Schnapf, who is overseeing the project with Joanna Bolme.

Both have long histories with Smith: Schnapf co-produced "XO" and "Figure 8," and Bolme was Smith's girlfriend in Portland, Ore., in the mid-'90s. She received her musical grounding from him and now plays bass in the band led by former Pavement singer Stephen Malkmus.

Both had been in sporadic contact with Smith in recent years and were called in by the singer's family to steer "Songs" to completion.

"Each record is different, and here we go again, this is another one," Schnapf says, summarizing the music he's been immersed in for weeks. "He's got his melodic sensibility ... but he's not doing the same thing again. He's just pushing the boundaries, sending out the probe."

Schnapf and Bolme are previewing a taste of the album on a recent morning, playing six songs that range from the spare, pensive "Let's Get Lost" to a clattering rock track called "Distorted Reality." Another song ends with two competing spoken recitations, one from each speaker, and in another the wobbling sound of a tape reel is audible beneath Smith's soft vocal.

"I think there's a bit of chaos, but it's a controlled chaos," Bolme says, aiming a remote control at the CD player to select another track.

"There's definitely a sonic thing," Schnapf adds. "He always played with form, and that continues.... I was always a fan of the littler, direct, intimate thing, and I'm just happy to see that he managed to do both again -- have this crazy big aural thing, and then be able to do a song just him and a guitar. The combination of the two makes both stronger."

Smith's nine-year solo career took him from the shadows of the indie-rock underground to, incongruously, the stage at the 1998 Academy Awards, where his song "Miss Misery," from "Good Will Hunting," was nominated for a best original song Oscar.

Despite that bubble of visibility and his ongoing critical reputation, Smith never made a big commercial breakthrough. His most popular album, with sales of 224,000, was "XO," his first for the major label DreamWorks.

Plans for this new record are falling into place. Though the singer was still under contract to DreamWorks, "Songs From a Basement on the Hill" was planned as a separate, independent project, and Smith's family is finalizing arrangements with an undisclosed label, hoping for a fall release.

Smith recorded the album in a Van Nuys studio he had furnished with vintage sound equipment, playing most of the parts himself. Though he left scores of songs behind, Schnapf and Bolme were able to assemble the album based on a list Smith had made indicating his vision for the record.

Says Schnapf, "This is the last living body of work. If anything happens after that, then it's just collected, it's not a concept that he had."

The pair were guided by Smith's written notes, rough mixes and alternate recordings, and by their own conversations with people who had been in the studio with him.

One day, Schnapf recalls, a casual reference by Smith's sister to "the Fourth of July grand finale" instantly explained the musician's intention for a previously puzzling fusillade of drums. And they also had their own histories with Smith to fall back on.

"There were little bits in the songs that would come up, and me and Rob would look at each other like, 'Ah, that's an Elliott thing,' " Bolme says. "Like his little goofy drum fill, or a guitar lick or something. We've had enough experience to know that would be the thing that Elliott would walk over and turn up."

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