The fifth instalment in our extensive classic covers series* is Last Call, a lyrical dirge that appeared on Elliott Smith's game-changing 1994 debut LP Roman Candle.
In the accompanying video - on the 10th anniversary of his death in October 2003 - you will see and hear us at our most vulnerable, playing the collective characters in all of Elliott's songs, living our lives and loving each other and constantly questioning our own perceptions and the world around us, wondering "Who are we? Why are we here? How can we make this life worth living?"
Elliott Smith recorded Roman Candle in 1993, while he was still in the Portland-based band Heatmiser, which he'd formed with Neil Gust a few years prior. He intended the songs on Roman Candle more as basement demos than a finished record, and aspired only to put out a single. When he presented the songs to the label Cavity Search, they released the album in its entirety, sparking the beginning of a storied solo career for Mr. Smith.
Heatmiser, a grungy rock act, had left Elliott seeking a softer and more intimate way to present his songwriting and voice with Roman Candle. "I thought my head would be chopped off immediately when it came out because at the time it was so opposite to the grunge thing that was popular..." He said years later. "The thing is that album was really well-received, which was a total shock, and it immediately eclipsed (Heatmiser), unfortunately." Smith followed his minimal acoustic debut with the LP's Elliott Smith in 1995 and Either/Or in 1997, both released on the label Kill Rock Stars. His self-titled debut was still dark and minimalistic, but Either/Or began to showcase Smith's gifts for multi-tracking a variety of instruments and layering parts he'd performed and recorded himself.
Elliott's mainstream recognition increased after he recorded the track Miss Misery specifically for Portland director Gus Van Sant's film Good Will Hunting. The film was an Academy Awards darling - and Smith himself was nominated for his original song and performed solo on acoustic guitar at the televised ceremony in 1998. Miss Misery lost out to Titanic's My Heart Will Go on, but Smith was able to appreciate the humour of the situation and described performing at the Oscars as "surreal."
Elliott moved to Brooklyn, NY and was able to sign to the much larger Dreamworks Records label to release his next record XO, a formidable pop record fleshed out with additional musicians, strings, horns, Chamberlins, and intensely memorable lyricism. Known by acquaintances as a heavy drinker and pill user, prone to suicidal outbursts and a few unsuccessful attempts, Smith toured in support of the record backed up by the Portland duo Quasi, and musicians such as Jon Brion and Rob Schnapf. On rare occasions when he'd perform solo, Smith was notorious for aborting songs mid-performance if they weren't sounding good enough to meet his standards. "What's the point of playing a song badly?" he has said. "It'd be better to play it and mean it, than to just walk through it."
Nomadic Mr. Smith picked up and moved to LA from NY in 1999, recording the beautiful Beatles cover Because, which appeared on the soundtrack to another Oscar-winning film, Dreamworks' American Beauty. Riding the momentum of this track came the album Figure 8, partially recorded at Abbey Road Studios in England and released in 2000. A lush and beautifully orchestrated album, led off by the jangly old-time piano of the first track Son of Sam, Figure 8 would prove Elliott's worth in many music critic's eyes. Though the elaborate instrumentation was a far cry from his lo-fi bedroom acoustic debut, this was Smith sounding as he wished to sound, fully produced and polished yet retaining his vigorously raw lyrical energy and stubborn, laid back vocals whose emotional veracity was undeniable. This would be Elliott Smith's final album completed in his lifetime.
Throughout all his accomplishments and self-described failures, Smith was a darkly affected man, haunted by past abuses by his step-father and leaving a trail of broken relationships behind him. Many of those who confronted Elliott about his addictions and his tendency to teeter on the brink of death found their dealings with him come to an abrupt end. A fundamentally private person, fans can only know what he has chosen to express through his unquestionably remarkable body of musical work. Throughout 2001-2003, Smith was apparently in the midst of heroin and crack addiction, and performed very sparingly . Attempts were made to record a follow-up to Figure 8 in studio with Jon Brion, but the sessions prove fruitless and Smith went on to record the material himself, with occasional guest appearances from the likes of Sam Coomes of Quasi and Stephen Drozd of the Flaming Lips. The stunningly candid record would later be released posthumously under the name From A Basement On A Hill. One need only listen to that record to glimpse both the emotional turmoil and musical genius of Elliott Smith towards the end of his life.
Despite an arrest by the LAPD and attempts at rehab leading to severe withdrawal from prescription psychiatric medications and alcohol, among other things, Smith continued to perfect his final (markedly louder, pitch-shifted and noisier) recordings and contributed songs to more films, including Wes Anderson's The Royal Tennenbaums. He was scheduled to mix his final record with Larry Crane in November 2003.
In late-October, though, police were called to Smith's place in California - which he shared with his girlfriend - to find him collapsed on the living room floor with multiple stab wounds to his chest. He died in the hospital shortly thereafter.
From A Basement On A Hill was released in 2004, a year after Elliott's death and a year after Ryan and I met. When we heard about Elliott's death in October 2003, we were inexplicably shocked despite the series of clues Smith left us fans along the way alluding to the end. I returned home to find Ryan in tears for the first time since I'd known him. Elliott had been one of his truest inspirations, a songwriter just like him, who'd left behind the bombastic youthful meanderings of his early bands to sit and make acoustic records by himself, holed up in a bedroom. Ryan's debut solo album, a moody and unsettling collection of 18 songs entitled Nothing Left Unsaid, was released in 2003 in quiet tribute to Elliott Smith. I'll never forget the tears in his eyes as he told me the news, and the weight of the information on my heart and mind. It was in large part due to our shared love of Elliott Smith that we found the nerve to begin performing music together 10 years ago.
Thank you Eric Stanley for requesting this song. You commissioned one of our most uncharacteristic and meaningful works, knowing all too well your brother's uncanny ability to crawl inside Elliott's world of singing, writing and playing. Cursed Arrows have included more Elliott Smith covers in our extensive repertoire than songs by any other artist.
*Cursed Arrows are a post-proto-punk duo from Canada. Our Classic Covers Project was initiated during the making of our 2013 full-length original album, SONIC UNION. All songs were performed and recorded by us, specifically by fan request, and remain unreleased outside of Youtube. All videos were shot and edited by Cursed Arrows.
© 2013 Aluminum Monster Productions