(In the Red)
"Some say I'm a cannibal/They think I'll eat them alive," Jay Lindsey snarls to open Lost Sounds, his band's locomotive of a new record. Despite being more prolific and more distinctive than perhaps any other local band over the past few years (and certainly as in-control of their sound), the Lost Sounds have always been held at arm's length by much of the local music community. The fact that writers at this paper have consistently championed them has frequently been used as evidence that we clearly don't know what we're talking about.
But the noisy, confrontational sound and reputation that cleaves local audiences, sending them rushing to the stage or, figuratively, to the exits, gets tweaked a little here. Lindsey follows up the line by pulling back the curtain: "But I've got no teeth to chew/So you know that is a lie."
The song is "There's Nothing," and it fits the mood of a record that's both menacing and mordant ("Some say the end is near/But I think it's already here/See the whole sky turn black/It's worth a laugh," Lindsey surmises). On the next song, "Destructo Comet," Lindsey's musical partner Alicja Trout invites the listener to "Come on, take a ride with me," and the trip could be to the end of a disintegrating relationship ("Well I run from you like a dog in danger/In and out the torture chamber/Guess this is the life for you and me") or, according to the guitar that comes blasting out of feedback near the two-minute mark, just to the end of the world.
For a blistering 33 minutes, Lost Sounds takes the listener to some uncomfortable places (especially "Your Looking Glass" and "Clones Don't Love"), but the music is so consistently riveting that the experience is more energizing than depressive. The album was recorded for well-known national indie In the Red and with a bigger recording budget than the band has had before. In a Flyer feature a couple of weeks ago, Lindsey said that some people have complained that the record is too slick, which is almost laughable. (It's hard to imagine the limits of the aural universe traveled by the person who finds this record slick.) What it does have that perhaps some other Lost Sounds records don't is a sonic clarity that gives the music more, not less, power. This works in concert with a new emphasis on melody, both vocal and instrumental. (Check out the keyboard melody and la-la-la vocal hook on "And You Dance?.") The result is a record that rivals 2001's Black-Wave as the band's best.
My favorite track is "I Get Nervous," an overpowering, breakneck, virtuoso spazz-out that's the album's longest song yet has the fewest lyrics. Built around a simple statement --"Those things they put inside me/You know they make me nervous" -- the song makes a rattled rush out of its uncertainty. A rescue plea turned four-minute emotional epic, the song opens fast, slows down to gather itself, and then speeds up even more. After a mic-shattering scream of the title phrase, a repeated two-note keyboard riff sounds a panic alarm while drums pound like a SWAT team breaking down the door and guitars clip along with the merciless precision of firing synapses. It sounds like a band trying to outrun the shakes.
From the echoey, agitated pulse that opens "There's Nothing" to the synthesized buzz that fades off on the finale "Bombs Over Mom," this might be the best local record of the year. If it ends up being the band's swan song, it's a hell of a way to go out. -- Chris Herrington
What we demand from a posthumous album like Elliott Smith's From a Basement on the Hill is surpassing quality: It needs to reinforce our idea of the artist as a doomed genius and fit the narrative of someone too sensitive for this world. There is little shame in this expectation, but it can cloud listeners' judgments: In our need to remember the dead in the best terms possible, we often hold our tongues and convince ourselves that what we hear is better than it is.
So the bad news regarding Smith's final album, From a Basement on the Hill, the first of no doubt many posthumous releases from the troubled singer, is that it is not very good. In fact, it continues a trend of descending quality that started with 1998's XO, a remarkable album that could not match its predecessor, 1997's Either/Or. Figure 8, released in 2000, was less memorable than XO, and now From a Basement on the Hill is even less noteworthy.
Picking up where Figure 8 left off, From a Basement on the Hill eschews the stark acoustic intimacy of Smith's early albums and the tearjerker orchestration of XO for a more guitar-heavy sound. There are a few standouts, such as "King's Crossing" and "Pretty (Ugly Before)," Smith's collaboration with former Heatmiser bandmate Sam Coomes. But, overall, the melodies are less insistent and piercing and the song structures less concise. Tracks bleed into each other, becoming alarmingly indistinguishable.
While some songs -- like "Fond Farewell" and "Last Hour" -- seem to foreshadow Smith's gruesome end (the singer committed suicide by stabbing himself in the chest), tracks like "Let's Get Lost," "Strung Out Again," and "Shooting Star" wallow in more concrete drug references. It is rumored that Smith's drug abuse escalated during the making of From a Basement on the Hill. If so, the album gives lie to the nefarious belief that drugs enhance creativity. In this case, Smith's drug problem seems to have hindered his natural gifts for strong pop melodies and downcast lyrics. This doesn't even sound like the same singer from Either/Or and XO: His voice is drained and distant, devoid of the piercing ache that threaded through his earlier albums.
From a Basement on the Hill does not, however, diminish Smith's legacy; instead, by refusing to meet expectations, it only makes him less abstractly legendary and more human, prone to creative troughs as well as peaks.
-- Stephen Deusner