China: 20 Years of Either/Or

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Elliott Smith – Either/Or

Released February 25th, 1997 on Kill Rock Stars Records

BestEverAlbums:  #149

RYM:  #106

Kurt Cobain may have been louder and flashier, but Elliott Smith really was the quintessential Nineties rock star.  Haunted, brooding, and darkly melodic, he epitomized the “tortured artist” aesthetic that was popular during the first half of the decade.  Raised in an abusive environment in Texas, he moved to Portland, Oregon and channeled his demons into drugs, alcohol, and music.  His original band, Heatmiser, wasn’t anything particularly special but his solo releases – 1994’s Roman Candle and 1995’s self-titled LP – captured the imagination of listeners much more.  Those solo releases had little to do with what Heatmiser was doing, and in the fall of 1996, shortly before their last album was released, they broke up (fun fact: bassist Sam Coomes would go on to be the frontman for Quasi).  Smith’s next release would eclipse both his former band and everything he had recorded up until that point.

 

Either/Or was first an attempt by Smith to vary the moods on an album.  Elliott Smith had been an album that was largely the same from beginning to end:  acoustic confessionals about drugs and depression.  Either/Or has some of those, of course:  “Speed Trials”, “Between The Bars”, and “No Name No. 5” are evidence of that.  Songs like “Alameda”, “Ballad Of Big Nothing”, and “Rose Parade”, though, are evidence of something bigger:  songs by a guy who proved on this album that he could craft big hooks, emotionally impactful melodies, and arrangements that were built to last.  That last item is especially important:  Either/Or doesn’t sound like 1997 – there’s no pandering to teen pop, or ska, or post-grunge trends.  It could have been released last year, or ten years ago, or today.  It’s songs and it’s themes are artistically timeless, even more so now that the waves of the Great American Heroin Addiction have crashed over the shores of seemingly every state in the Union.

 

Everything that came after – Gus Van Sant’s love of the album, Good Will Hunting, “Miss Misery”, Smith’s two major label albums, and his mysterious death – would cement his legend.  Either/Or is the moment that Emily St. John Mandel describes in Station Eleven:  a moment that, ever after, would divide Smith’s life into “Before” and “After”.  Before Either/Or, he was an up-and-coming songwriter with an acoustic guitar and a monkey on his back.  After, he was a bona fide rock star with a following and highly-placed friends.  Neither would prevent him from slipping a little further into addiction and depression – or from dying in Los Angeles with twin stab wounds to the chest, a death still shrouded to this day in suspicion and mystery.

 

Kurt Vile – b’lieve i’m goin down…

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Kurt Vile – b’lieve i’m goin down…

Anyone who’s been watching Kurt Vile explore the experience of a man and his guitar for a while now can be forgiven for thinking, upon a listening of “Pretty Pimpin'”, “Oh, he’s found a beat, good for him.”  Vile’s stock-in-trade has been hazy dissipation for some time now, through his solo debut Smoke Ring For My Halo and into his excessively sprawling, hazy-to-the-point-of-incoherence sophomore follow up Wakin On A Pretty Daze.  On b’lieve i’m goin down… Vile snaps back into focus, like coming out of a particularly deep stoned reverie.

This isn’t to say that he’s lost the meandering quality.  A number of songs on here – the ones that stretch out towards the seven minute mark, mainly – are strongly reminiscent of his work on the last album, where you start losing the plot around the four minute mark and you never really recover it.  “That’s Life Tho (almost hate to say)” and “Lost My Head There” are the worst offenders of this sort, but they’re balanced off by the melodic success of tracks like “I’m An Outlaw”, “Dust Bunnies”, and “Bad Omens”.  The album works on that careful balance the entire way, teetering between focused, song-oriented work and the hazy, lengthy jams he’s particularly known for.  The song-oriented tracks are a nice break from the jams, which don’t run quite as overlong as they did on Wakin On A Pretty Daze, but come close.

Ultimately Kurt Vile is at his best when he’s mining out a Crazy Horse-esque pattern with languid, stoned vocals, and that’s precisely what’s on offer here.  It can get a bit exhausting at times but there’s always something to draw you back in, especially if you wear your hair long and keep a baggie of herbal medicine in your bedside table.