Striking revelation in epics, vignettes


Elliott Smith

“From a Basement on the Hill” (Anti-)


The title of the venerated singer-songwriter’s posthumous album pairs contrasting perspectives -- the image of the basement suggests digging below the surface, while the hill evokes the idea of taking in a wide view.

Both viewpoints are in force on the album, with some songs penetrating deep into a character’s private psychology and others observing emotional activity from a more detached, narrative vantage point.

The album, which Smith had finished recording but hadn’t mixed or sequenced, comes out Oct. 19, almost a year to the day after he died of a knife wound in his Los Angeles apartment. For someone who enjoyed an unusually intense bond with his audience, that’s not nearly long enough for his presence to fade, and his lingering memory will probably color the way many listeners hear some of the album’s especially revealing lines.


But in its ramshackle glory and musical wanderlust, “Basement” reaches far beyond the cult that coalesced around Smith during his decade-long evolution from isolated confessional auteur to one of the most widely admired troubadours of his generation.

Smith, who started in punk rock, chafed under that stereotype, and “Basement” -- conceived as an independent release during a temporary break from his DreamWorks/Interscope contract -- served as a revitalizing break from the normal career cycle.

Freed from the more formal sound and circumstances of his previous work, Smith indulged without being indulgent, and the revelation here is the exuberant, instinctive, playful and daring sonic pilot who was hidden inside the meticulous craftsman of such albums as “XO” and “Figure 8.”

Time after time, Smith drops his poignant, enticing melodies into musical maelstroms fashioned from fuzzed and distorted guitars, clattering rhythms and layers of sounds ranging from keyboards and string arrangements to chattering voices to the chirps of birds and crickets.

These bracing, unruly epics are balanced by more gentle, intimate reveries, but no matter where you go, the thematic terrain is pure Smith, following the music’s swings from euphoria to despair. Smith is unmatched at capturing the futility of a life dogged by toxic relationships and detox clinics, a life whose promises of solace evaporate like phantoms.

Even though his singing is freer and more forward than ever, its plangent timbre always carries at least a trace of pain. By the end, you know what it’s like to feel everything so intensely that it just hurts too much.


Richard Cromelin

Attempt at a statement goes pop

Good Charlotte

“The Chronicles of Life and Death” (Epic)

** 1/2

For a moment, punk rock was sounding ambitious again. Green Day has already delivered a timely rock opera, “American Idiot,” and now Good Charlotte is stretching its punk-pop into a concept album with the humble title “The Chronicles of Life and Death.”

But the band never quite escapes its proven pop formula or simple tales of angst.

The album begins impressively enough with the voices of a pop-goth choir before slipping directly into the pure radio pop of the title track, a stirring sound far more Beach Boys than the Clash. It’s packaged as a major statement, but the lyrics remain emotional in the shallowest of ways. No ideas, just attitude.

The band is led by Benji and Joel Madden, twins from Waldorf, Md., with a knack for the sugary, well-crafted melody. It makes for perfectly pleasant background noise for your homework or morning commute, but the band clearly isn’t ready to risk adding depth to a successful career.

Good Charlotte likes it safer than that. “Walk Away (Maybe)” sounds exactly like any anonymous punk-pop product of the last five years, and much of what follows is equally unsurprising. And “I Just Wanna Live” is white funk seemingly ready for a Justin Timberlake session. Which at least suggests a different kind of ambition.

-- Steve Appleford

Not a total eclipse of the heart, but ...


“Antics” (Matador)

** 1/2

Forget the title. There’s little playful about the New York quartet, which seemed poised to lead the surge of bands influenced by such ‘80s post-punk acts as New Order only to have newcomer Franz Ferdinand seize the moment. Can Interpol seize it back? If not, it won’t be due to a lack of swagger and determination, qualities the group shows both on this album and in its concerts.

On the 2002 debut album, “Turn On the Bright Lights,” the swagger seemed hollow. The organ chords that open this follow-up’s first song, “Next Exit,” promise warmth and color, underscored by Paul Banks’ solemn invocation, “We ain’t goin’ to the town, we’re going to the city ... and make this place a heart to be a part of again.”


A few songs, notably “C’Mere,” reveal engaging romantic vulnerability, but otherwise the band works too hard to seem mysterious (Banks’ over-massaged lyrics) and to create a sinister, Velvet Underground-ish aura (such song titles as “Evil,” “Narc,” and “Public Pervert”). The musical approach and Banks’ vocals (think a smoother version of the Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler or a more direct Morrissey) straddle the line between cool and cold. There is heart, but too often it’s hidden.

-- Steve Hochman

An Urban source of country energy

Keith Urban

“Be Here” (Capitol Nashville)

** 1/2

On his third solo album, this Aussie country singer-songwriter frequently swings for the fences, connects solidly enough for a high on-base percentage but really only belts it out of the park once.

Some writers find deep meaning in life’s smallest moments; Urban, who co-wrote most of the album’s 13 songs with a variety of collaborators, likes to tackle the big subjects head on.

In “Days Go By,” he delivers an earnest country-rocker about the hectic pace of modern life and what often gets lost in the shuffle. He counts his blessings in “God’s Been Good to Me,” explores the challenge of sustaining a long-term relationship in “The Hard Way,” celebrates a life partner in “You’re My Better Half” and finds resolve to move on after a breakup in “Live to Love Another Day.”

His sincerity plays well throughout but reaches a higher level in Matraca Berg and Jim Collins’ penetrating ballad “Nobody Drinks Alone,” which debunks the notion that anyone in pain is never really alone but always haunted by the ghosts they’re trying to outrun.

Urban and his album co-producer Dann Huff lay the strings on too thick in some of the slower numbers, but otherwise Urban’s fleet guitar work and the muscular backing from his band keep the energy level high.


-- Randy Lewis

Inspiration in plentiful supply


“El Viaje a Ninguna Parte” (EMI Latin)


Do not attempt to absorb this sprawling double-disc collection in one sitting. The former lead singer with Spanish hard-rock group Heroes del Silencio has crammed the 20 songs with so much color, poetry and texture that the experience can be overwhelming at first.

Like Manu Chao, another notable rock songwriter of Spanish origin, Bunbury (who has dropped his first name, Enrique) sees himself as a member of an imaginary circus troupe that wanders the world in search of romance and inspiration. He enhances the record’s carnival vibe with instrumental touches that are alternately humorous and poignant, such as the South American charango on the rollicking “Que Tengas Suertecita,” or a jazzy trumpet on “Voces de Tangos.”

Not all of the tracks reach the level of inspiration that marked 1999’s “pequeno,” Bunbury’s best effort to date. But you can’t accuse him of lack of ambition. Throughout the two discs, he sings with the fury of a fallen angel, his ragged voice infusing an anthem-like quality into even the most abstract of hooks.

At a time when many so-called Latin rock artists are reaching the charts by veering dangerously close to pop, it is inspiring to encounter one who refuses to compromise.

-- Ernesto Lechner

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.