Elliott Smith: All Things Must Pass

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Elliott Smith, 34, died on Oct. 21, 2003. He is survived by a private history, his personal demons, questions about his death and some songs that make sense of it all. By Jonathan Valania

Something terrible happened on the night of Oct. 21, 2003, in the cozy, box-like bungalow at 1857 1/2 Lemoyne Street in the Echo Park section of Los Angeles where Elliott Smith lived with girlfriend Jennifer Chiba. In Chiba’s version of events, the couple had an argument that grew so heated she locked herself in the bathroom. At some point, she heard Smith scream and unlocked the door to see him standing with his back to her. When he turned around, there was a knife sticking out of his chest and he was gasping for breath. Panicked, Chiba pulled the knife out of him, and Smith turned and took a few steps before collapsing. Chiba called 911, and an operator talked her through CPR until the paramedics arrived. Smith was rushed to a nearby hospital, where emergency surgery to repair the two stab wounds to the heart couldn’t save his life.

Back at the house, police found a note written on a Post-It:
I’m so sorry.
Love, Elliott
God forgive me.

When the coroner’s report was finally issued in January 2004, the nature of Smith’s death was maddeningly ambiguous. While the circumstances of the case had most of the hallmarks of a suicide, certain factors also pointed to the possibility of a homicide: the absence of hesitation wounds (the nicks and cuts that come from tentative initial attempts to stab yourself), the fact that Smith didn’t remove his shirt before stabbing himself, a pair of cuts on his hand and arm that could’ve been defensive wounds incurred while fighting off an attacker. There’s also Chiba’s removal of the knife and what police characterize as her refusal to cooperate with investigators, all of which leaves the precise nature of Smith’s death in limbo. Chiba has since refuted police reports that she didn’t cooperate, but the case remains officially open and under investigation.

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The Black Keys: My City Was Gone

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You don’t have to go looking for the blues in the Black Keys’ hometown of Akron, Ohio: The blues will find you. By Andrew Parks

Ohio’s Economic Portrait—The Heartache Of It All
“Ohio lost about five times the number of jobs from 2000-2004 that it lost during the 1990-92 recession.”
—Cleveland Plain Dealer, page A1, Oct. 21, 2004

Patrick Carney’s car, a 1969 MGB roadster that’s barely big enough to accommodate his six-foot-five frame, won’t start. The drummer for the Black Keys is currently behind the wheel of a loaner: his grandfather’s silver, boat-sized Cadillac Coup DeVille. Along with Black Keys singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach, Carney is giving MAGNET a guided tour of the five miles that matter in Akron, Ohio: a dismal stretch that includes one decent record store, an antiquated, single-screen movie theater and lots of bars. Carney cues up Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” on his iPod and begins to narrate details about his hometown.

“A river of evil flows beneath Akron,” he says.

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Jay Bennett: Enemy Territory

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On “Cruel But Honest Fortune,” from Jay Bennett’s The Beloved Enemy (Undertow), the ex-Wilco multi-instrumentalist sounds like he’s headed for the edge. “There’s a cruel but honest fortune inside every misery,” he sings over a loose-stringed guitar. When reached at his studio in Chicago, however, Bennett laughs and swears the quiet, near-murder ballads that fill Enemy, his second solo album of 2004, aren’t really that out of character.

“I think it’s a sad record, and I wouldn’t say there’s resolution, either,” he says. “I didn’t put this out to say hello and then invent, investigate, experiment with this side of me. I’ve always done this kind of stuff. I’ve got tracks like these that have been around for 10 years.”

Bennett is often portrayed as Wilco’s shaggy dude with dreadlocks, a guy you suspected was always a bigger influence on records like Summerteeth than he was given credit for. Bennett admits he’s a “pop guy,” which only makes the stark nature of Enemy that much more surprising. Even the album’s best songs—the tender “My Little Valentine,” “If I Forget How To Land” (a duet with alt-country singer Michelle Anthony)—are bereft and brooding.

Don’t attribute the melancholy heard on Enemy to Bennett being unceremoniously booted from Wilco in 2001, however. As sordidly documented in the film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, Bennett (who, through selective editing, comes across as the bad guy) was anti-climactically fired for erratic behavior and various drug offenses. But he doesn’t want to rehash the film or his departure from the band, other than to assert that his new album isn’t about Wilco or Jeff Tweedy.

“No, that record would have been called The Fucking Enemy,” says Bennett with a hoarse laugh. “How do you tell someone you’ve moved on? I’ve moved on. I lost a wife and had two uncles and my grandmother die. Come on, compare that to a guy whose head was getting so big there was no longer room in the room. I didn’t have to go mining for subject matter on this one. On the list of pain I was feeling, not being in Wilco is so far down it’s ridiculous. It was an exorcism in a way, but I wasn’t the most depressed guy in the world when I was doing it. This gave me joy.”

Bennett’s two previous post-Wilco albums—2002’s The Palace At 4am (Part 1) (recorded with Edward Burch) and 2004’s more stripped-down Bigger Than Blue—at times feature a full band. The poignant Enemy, on the other hand, is nearly a one-man show, from Bennett’s opening exclamation (“Whoa, it’s cold”) to the unlikely closing cover of Tori Amos’ “Pretty Good Year.” Rather than labor over the project for months, dubbing and overdubbing a la Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Bennett cut Enemy by himself in one week.

Keeping up his pace of writing and recording, Bennett has already finished his next album, titled The Magnificent Defeat and due out soon. “It’s the Beatle-y side of pop,” he says. “Maybe it’s the fast version of Enemy. It’s over the top in a sloppy way. Contrary to my reputation as a studio-wiz dude, this is not a return to that. It has a weird kind of energy to it, elements of light and dark.”

—Robert Baird

Essential New Music: Various Artists “Left Of The Dial: Dispatches From The ’80s Underground”

This four-CD boxed set can’t and won’t do anything lofty like write the definitive history of a bountiful musical decade, nor will it become some sort of mythical portal into the ’80s. (Leave that to the films of John Hughes.) Which isn’t to say this well-researched and lovingly compiled collection doesn’t aim high or true, just that the likely target listeners—those who favored college radio over Winger during the Reagan era—will probably use the 82-song Left Of The Dial more as a trip down memory lane than as a textbook. That it has potential to be both makes it a success.

Virtually every expected ’80s post-punk/alterna-rock/underground name shows up on this boxed set, each sporting a relatively obvious song choice: the Smiths (“This Charming Man”), Violent Femmes (“Blister In The Sun”), Pixies (“Monkey Gone To Heaven”), Joy Division (“Love Will Tear Us Apart”), R.E.M. (“Radio Free Europe”). These familiar—and rightfully canonized— songs act as a comely hook to experience some of the read-about-more-than-they’re-heard bands of the decade, from the Minutemen (whose “Political Song For Michael Jackson To Sing” still seems oddly revolutionary) to X (“Johny Hit And Run Paulene” is from Los Angeles, the band’s unforgettable debut). The Replacements’ Let It Be (“I Will Dare” is featured here) will never move enough units.

Left Of The Dial also sports a number of tracks clearly inspired more by fuzzy nostalgia than objective importance. What other reason could there be to include Lone Justice, Green On Red or the Smithereens? And since we’re asking the tough questions: Where’s Elvis Costello, Spacemen 3, the Fall, Mekons, Flaming Lips, Yo La Tengo, Galaxie 500, Wire, 10,000 Maniacs and Soul Asylum?

But as Bad Brains’ “Pay To Cum!” bumps up against the Sugarcubes’ “Birthday,” you have to wonder what, aside from the obvious timeframe, ties the often insanely disparate bunch together. From They Might Be Giants’ stiffly beautiful “Ana Ng” to the Stone Roses’ nearly perfect “She Bangs The Drums” to the Pogues’ “A Pair Of Brown Eyes,” what unites these moments—with a few obvious exceptions for out-and-out experimentalism—are their contributions to the parameters of the pop song.

If ’70s punk set fire to the guidebook, those who came after salvaged what they liked and wrote new definitions over scorched pages. Non-mainstream rock splintered and spiraled in a dozen compelling directions, instigating a creative boom whose aftershocks still rumble and whose epicenter deserves the kind of revisit Left Of The Dial does its best to inspire.

—Josh Modell

John Frusciante: Perfect From Now On

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Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante is learning to make brilliant mistakes on his own albums. Lots of them. By Patrick Berkery

It will take you roughly 15 minutes to read this interview with John Frusciante. In that time, the Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist and his frequent collaborator, multi-instrumentalist Josh Klinghoffer, might record basic tracks for six or seven songs and add percussion overdubs. Maybe that’s stretching it a bit, but such an exaggeration illustrates that, when left to his own devices, Frusciante works quickly and quite often. Half a dozen releases are scheduled to be out by year’s end on the Record Collection label, all of which were recorded, mixed and mastered in a six-month period beginning late last year.

The first release was Frusciante’s fifth solo disc, The Will To Death, which came out in June. Tracked in a handful of mad-dash sessions, the album is purposefully raw without sounding rushed. A psychedelic-rock record that’s heavy on mood and melody, Death leaves plenty of open spaces for the slow-motion beauty of Frusciante’s expressive guitar work. Also arriving under Frusciante’s own name this year are the D.C. EP (recorded with Ian MacKaye and Fugazi’s tech/second drummer Jerry Busher) and the full-lengths Inside Of Emptiness and A Sphere In The Heat Of Silence. You have to wonder where he finds the time.

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