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Elliott Smith

Once upon a time there was a tall, reedy, long-haired Englishman named Nick Drake who recorded three albums of poignant, whispery folk songs about isolation and alienation before overdosing on antidepressants in 1974. In the years since his death a cult has grown up around him which regards him (quite rightly) as one of the great unheralded talents in all of pop music, the brightest light in the British folk-rock scene of the '60s and '70s, and one of the artists most responsible for the development of the singer/songwriter pop idiom we know today. Drake's legacy makes mention of his name virtually unavoidable when discussing Elliott Smith, and for some, Smith seems like the late '90s American reincarnation of Drake, with his starkly minimal acoustic arrangements and breathy gossamer voice.

There are differences, of course, perhaps the most critical that Drake was, at root, a lonesome melancholy hippie, while Smith is, in essence, a defiant, angry punk. But the basic feel, of a brilliant loner making sad, solitary music with his acoustic guitar, is the same, and Smith, like Drake is a true master of this craft. With little more than some beautifully fingerpicked guitar and that plaintive voice, Smith covers a far greater emotional range than most rock combos. With every release he has matured as a songwriter, combining raw, rough poetry with backhandedly memorable melodies and subtle arrangements. Today he is among the best -- and certainly the most recognized -- in the increasingly crowded indie singer-songwriter world.

Strangely enough, it is to indie film director Gus Van Sant that Smith probably most owes his success. Van Sant, as you probably recall, used Smith's music on the soundtrack to Good Will Hunting, leading to a surprise Oscar nomination for Smith. At that time (1997), Smith had already been around awhile, as long time member of Portland rock band Heatmiser and an established solo artist with three albums to his credit. Those albums, by the way, were Roman Candle ('94), his brilliant Kill Rock Stars debut Elliott Smith ('95), and Either/Or ('97), the last of which featured a couple of songs that appeared on the soundtrack. The movie's success got Smith noticed in a big way, and earned him a deal with Dreamworks Records, which released his next two albums, XO ('98) and Figure 8 (2000). Those two records saw Smith move away from the extraordinarily intimate, stark fare of his previous releases and towards something cleaner, glossier, better produced, and more pop-oriented, but on the albums, his prodigious songwriting talent is as much in evidence as ever.

In the years following Figure 8, Smith's behavior became increasingly erratic, his haphazard live performances suggesting some kind of instability. He committed suicide in October 2003, midway through the recording of his oft-delayed sixth album, From a Basement on the Hill.

"Waltz No. 1" is an unreleased demo collected on Tape Op Magazine's Creative Music Recordings collection and available thanks to the kindness of Tiny Telephone.