More than 13 years after his death, Elliott Smith’s music continues to resonate with longtime fans and new converts, including such unlikely followers as Frank Ocean, who tapped Smith’s influence on his acclaimed Blonde album. It’s that audience Kill Rock Stars hopes to tap into with the March 10 release of a remastered version Either/Or, which includes a bonus disc featuring five previously unreleased live tracks and four studio outtakes.
Originally released on Feb. 25, 1997, Either/Or was Elliott Smith’s third solo album and second for the Portland-based independent label. He had previously gained some notice fronting the four-piece rock band Heatmiser, but it was through his intimate and confessional solo work that his considerable talent shined the brightest. It would bring him an unlikely Oscar nomination for the song “Miss Misery” from the Gus Van Sant film Good Will Hunting and an even more unlikely spot performing on the Academy Awards on the same broadcast that featured Celine Dion belting out her Oscar-winning Titanic theme song “My Heart Will Go On.”
Either/Or — named for Søren Kierkegaard book of the same name, which Smith studied Hampshire College as a philosophy student — marked a turning point in in his career. Three of the songs on the album ended up on the soundtrack to Good Will Hunting (along with that Oscar-nominated new song “Miss Misery”; an alternate orchestral version of “Between the Bars” orchestrated by Danny Elfman, who composed the film’s score; and “No Name #3” from Smith’s 1994 solo debut, Roman Candle).
“Most of those songs were recorded in a friend’s warehouse space on 8-track,” Smith told me in a January 1998 interview for Billboard, just prior to his Oscars performance. “I didn’t have any idea that they would be playing in a big movie theater. I didn’t have any idea that Matt Damon and Minnie Driver would be making out with one of my songs in the background.”
Yet his ascension to the mainstream on the Oscar stage, and the newfound attention that came with it, might have also contributed to his downfall. Smith died on Oct. 21, 2003 of an apparent self-inflicted knife wound at age 34.
Either/Or was also his final effort on an indie label before moving to DreamWorks, a situation that had some indie purists whispering “sellout.” The fact was, Smith had already been affiliated with a major label before, since Heatmiser were signed to Virgin, although their final album came out through indie affiliate Caroline. “Some people go around weeping about big corporations, but I don’t care,” Smith told me at the time. “I’ve been on indie labels and a major label before, and people at Virgin and Kill Rock Stars were real nice.”
It’s those nice people at Kill Rock Stars who are behind the reissue of Either/Or, an album that’s certainly deserving of another listen. According to Larry Crane — Smith’s friend, co-producer, and the man appointed by Smith’s family to oversee his archive — the plan to reissue the album actually began more than a decade ago, for the Either/Or‘s 10th anniversary, but that soon evolved into a full compilation of mostly previously unreleased recordings, issued in 2007 as the two-CD set New Moon.
Though Crane’s only credit on the original version of Either/Or is among the single-named “thank you’s” in the album’s sparse liner notes, he says he recorded the vocals for “Pictures of Me” at his home studio, Laundry Rules, which was among the half dozen makeshift recording spaces which Smith chose to record the album.
Although he admittedly spent less time in the studio than Smith’s go-to producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf, Crane was partners with Smith in Jackpot! Studios and got to know his songwriting and recording techniques, something that became invaluable when shifting through the singer/songwriter’s trove of unreleased. “I knew what kind of equipment he was using and what his methodology was, even down to what certain tracks would mean,” Crane says. “He’d do certain things in the studio, like recording a harmony vocal, which he called ‘sending out a probe,’ when he was looking for the right notes, and he’d usually erase over it, but if I found that, I knew what it was. Having those kind of things in my back pocket was handy.”
For the Either/Or bonus disc, Crane compiled two different versions that he submitted Smith’s family. “The family really wanted to pare it down a little, so it’s not a very long bonus disc,” he says. “My instinct as a music fan would be to have everything, but in the end, it’s just a little extra taste.” He points out that it was important to keep the original album on its own disc and to not have the bonus disc overshadow the original, which runs just under 37 minutes.
The original album is nearly perfect, Crane adds, save for the positioning of “Cupid’s Trick” as its third-to-last song. “Joanna [Bolme, Smith’s one-time girlfriend, producer, and confidant] and I talked about it. She feels ‘Cupid’s Trick’ should be sooner on the record. Elliott was trying to hide it a little bit. He thought it was his weakest song on there, which I wouldn’t agree. Musically, it’s so beautiful.” Other than that, Crane appreciates the album’s running order, especially the end, which he didn’t want to disrupt by tacking bonus tracks on the same disc. “Ending with ‘Say Yes’ is just like the sun came out and it’s a beautiful day after a dark night,” he says.
Among the highlights of the studio tracks included on the bonus disc is “I Figured You Out,” a song that Smith gave to his friend and tourmate Mary Lou Lord, who released her version on her 1997 Martian Saints EP. Smith recorded the song as a demo in 1995 at the Heatmiser House with that band’s singer/guitarist Neil Gust on drums, and may have thought of it as a throwaway, but it stands as one of the strongest in his catalog. “Bottle Up and Explode,” which closes the bonus disc, hints to the future, as a different version of the song with alternate lyrics appeared on XO, his 1998 DreamWorks debut. And it ends on an up note — a jaunty instrumental take of “Pictures of Me” played on an organ.
In remastering the album, Crane and engineer Adam Gonsalves tried to stay true to Smith’s original vision and intent. “The first thing I always tell people is that it’s a remaster not a remix,” Crane says. “There was no going back to the multi-tracks and making a different version or anything. They’re all from the original mixes used on the record.” That said, with improvements in digital audio mastering in the last two decades, Crane was able to improve the sound of the album. “The fear of doing a record like this in remastering is that you just turn it up louder, limit it, and make it really bright, kind of like putting a lot sugar on your cereal,” Crane says. “In this case, we really tried to make sure we got more depth of field, more front to back and detail. We cleared up some clicks and pops that seemed extraneous. We tried to improve the low end a little bit by getting the notes a little deeper on bass guitars and kick drums in a better spot. I think the bottom-end is a little more developed and nuanced and the top is just a little clearer, without being brightened up a bunch. It’s a delicate process.”
And for those purists uninterested in the remastered version of Either/Or and the bonus tracks, Crane says the original album will stay in print, “so nobody can say we ruined the record.”
With lo-fi home studio recordings and his D.I.Y. ethic, some might assume the Smith recorded quickly, without many takes, but in truth, Crane says he was a perfectionist, frequently fine-tuning his songs with lyric and chord changes. “He wanted the best version of a song,” Crane confirms, “and it didn’t necessarily mean that it was played perfectly or recorded perfectly, but that it had the right lyrics and feel.” In one case, Crane says Smith labored to rework a lyric to eliminate the word “the,” while producer Rob Schnapf tried to talk him down by saying, “It’s not even a word, Elliott.”
While doing the archive work putting together the bonus disc, Crane stumbled upon multiple versions of songs, including an early take of “Between the Bars,” which sounded great, but when he compared it to the released version, he noticed a subtle difference. “It’s in a different key, it’s lower,” he says. “I think the guitar is tuned down a step or a half-step, and that little change right there gives the song such a different weight. It would have been a good song if it came out the way he recorded it the first time, but I think it’s a great song the way he finally delivered it.”
Smith’s musical prowess was at such a high level that those producing and recording him were often floored by his talent. Smith played every instrument on Either/Or. “I was so fun to watch him play in the studio,” Crane recalls. “He had a lot of chops on keyboards, piano, organ, drums, bass, and guitar. He put his time in to learn these instruments.”
Since Kill Rock Stars had released the four-song Alternative Versions From Either/Or EP in 2012, Crane didn’t want to include those tracks on the bonus disc. So aside from the four outtakes featured on the bonus disc, he decided include five live tracks recorded in 1997 at Yo Yo a Go Go Festival in Olympia, Washington. “It’s a great recording, because it’s one of the few, if any, live recordings from the pre-DreamWorks era that’s multitasked,” he says. “There’s a vocal mic, a guitar pickup, some room mics, so it was really nice to deal with and fine-tune the mix on that.”
Those live recordings show just what an accomplished musician Smith was. “His finger-picking is so intricate and cool; it’s nice to highlight that and bring it forward,” Crane says.
Those recordings also captures the intimacy of gig. While it might be a small festival, Smith can be heard giving a shoutout to his sister Ashley at the conclusion of “Pictures of Me.”
Yet in the year that followed, Smith’s career took a dramatic 180. “Good Will Hunting certainly changed everything,” Crane says. “I love Gus, he’s a great guy, but I kind of wonder, even if the songs were on the soundtrack, but that damn Oscar nomination… You look back and think, if that nomination hadn’t happened, he wouldn’t have gotten that whole rush of attention and it might have been just a nice slower growth and his whole life would have been different. But you have no control over these things.”
Eerily, Smith seemed to foreshadow that conflict in song in “Pictures of Me,” heard in both studio and live versions of the expanded version of Either/Or. “So sick and tired of all these pictures of me,” Smith sings. “Completely wrong. Totally wrong.