Everybody loves the music Elliott Smith created.
Or, at least they would if they listened to a couple albums, preferably his 1995 self-titled and 1997’s Either/Or. But I digress.
Music like Smith’s is more profound in depth than just chords and notes.
Thoughtful songs are often cooked up in the unconscious part of the mind and materialize from emotion or experience rather than just from the chromatic scale. It then becomes a challenge to the musician to find what timbres and progressions fit best with a song’s meaning and mood.
Simple differences like the amount of watts used on instruments dole a significant impact to the final product. In the limited space of this column, take for example, “Christian Brothers,” a well-crafted, intense cut from Elliott Smith’s excellent 1995 self-titled album.
The title of the song is a reference to a brandy that gives the narrator of the song the courage to confront his father using some fairly strong language — as a warning.
In either version, the songwriting is top notch with both heavy, original lyrics and masterful guitar sequences. But, the more recently released version of the song recorded with Heatmiser, a band Smith fronted, has the advantage of being electric, which better captures the anger and brooding of the song than merely an acoustic Yamaha FG.
The vocals are a bit richer in the electric version, able to compete in the mix, which I like, but some might understandably prefer the ones on the acoustic version. With the wholesome texture, it’s easy to get lost in the feel of the song, with everything balancing out from a full band experience. Unearthed only in 2013, it feels faster and livelier than the acoustic but still as haunting.
For songs that dig deeper than the surface of songwriting, the tiniest changes might steer a tune in a new direction or possibly a new perspective. And recognizing these intricacies makes listening to well-crafted songs that much more rewarding.
But it also raises questions like if the right decision were made for a song, which only makes music that much more of a mysterious sonic void of endless possibilities.
It’s the songwriters who climb their way out of that chaotic void and harness musical precision that are the ones who create the most timeless, unparalleled music. And regardless what version you prefer, surely Elliott Smith stands among those few.
Luke Furman is a junior studying journalism at Ohio University. What is your favorite Elliott Smith song? Let Luke know by tweeting him @LukeFurmanLog or emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org