Be Careful, or Else

Earlimart’s Treble and Tremble is a delicate mourning of lost souls, targeting one lost soul in particular. As is made obvious by the simple liner-note dedication, the ghost of Elliot Smith is the master of festivities. His spirit hangs over each song, weaves inspiration around each word, perhaps humming each chorus along with his friend, singer-songwriter Aaron Espinoza. Smith died October 21, 2003 from two allegedly self-inflicted knife wounds to the chest. Often caricatured by rock critics as a disheveled, drug addiction-riddled mess of depression, Smith is more commonly known amongst big fans as a brilliant musician with a soft, yearning voice and a big heart that always seemed to bleed onto his lyrics. With Treble and Tremble, Espinoza pays his respect to Smith’s work, offering a therapeutic celebration of an amazing musician I once knew, while not personally, then at least through his songs.

If Earlimart has collected criticism for ripping off its posthumous dedicatee, it’s no wonder. Espinoza’s voice sounds chillingly like Smith’s, but it’s a coincidence I feel lucky to hear, his breathy vocals paying adequate homage without seeming too overtly familiar. Further comfort can be found in his eloquent, straightforward lyrical style, while stronger and more assertive than on his previous effort, 2003's Everyone Down Here, is not attempting even a remote comparison to knockout Smith couplets like, “you’ll take advantage till you think you’re being used / ‘cause without an enemy your anger gets confused.” That said, demoting Treble and Tremble to wannabe Elliot Smith status, or worse, the act of cashing in on a dead guy, is the faulty result of confusing tribute for mimicry. I give credit where credit is due, to a singer-songwriter with the artistic integrity to release an album filled with original songs, dedicated to the genius that left the world too soon. While it’s not the same as having Smith alive with the promise of a Dylan’s lifetime of new material, Treble and Treble remains an amazing condolence to fans from someone who knew him well.

It was with this condolence in mind that I arrived hurriedly five minutes too late to see Earlimart play at the Troubadour in West Hollywood this past Friday, just in time to detect faint remnants of the set-opening song, only to realize, as the doorman checked my ID and issued my alcoholic wristband, that the song, “Unintentional Tape Manipulations” was the one song from Treble and Tremble that I especially looked forward to hearing live. As I entered the club the song's final minute of pure pounding manic one-chord fuzz swelled my ears, forcing me to forget my tardiness, forcing my head to bob up and down with the swollen beat, forcing upon my face a smile that, for once in my life, actually wanted to be there.

“Unintentional Tape Manipulations” is Treble and Tremble’s tour de force, the song that actually compels treble and trembling to occur. On record, it sounds like a mechanized assault vehicle, tweaked with impulsive bursts of energy, intermittently taking a solemn break with orchestration before exploding back into the madness, unleashing the distorted finality of guitars going crazy, befitting the desperately mournful lyrics, which commemorate the dead as the music quiets, whispering, “you found yourself, some mental health / but don’t forget to write, and stay home at night,” and then the maddening drums pound forward once again and a manic guitar fuzz jam fest ensues, drums reverberating the Troubadour walls. I knew from the rousing applause that it wasn’t just me who thought that “Unintentional Tape Manipulations” demanded its own encore. I felt a sudden impulse to yell out this request, “Play it again!” but was interrupted by “1st Instant / Last Report,” which eased me back into spectator mode.

As much as she wanted to come out and hold a candle to the grave, the Elliot Smith fan in me had been mysteriously subdued, and this concert I thought would be therapeutic wound up being a great show in its own right, independent of dwelling on what could have been. As the band knocked out musically peppy but lyrically laid back rockers like “We Drink on the Job” and “Sounds,” and the Elliot Smith allusions “Heaven Adores You” and “Tell the Truth, Parts 1 & 2,” I stood, enjoying the show without turning the usual aspiring-rock-critic tricks, admiring Espinoza’s humble between-song commentary, especially when he profusely thanked the audience, almost as if we were doing a favor for him, and voiced appreciation the opportunity to headline at the legendary Troubadour. If the progression from the complacent carelessness of Everyone Down Here to the expressive heights of Treble and Treble is any indication of creative momentum, Earlimart’s next album should land them headlining once again, two back-to-back sold-out shows, and this time, I’ll be in the audience on both nights plenty of time to catch “Unintentional Tape Manipulations.”

On a more somber, backward-looking note, one song from Treble and Tremble was glaringly missing from the set list, but its absence was in good taste. Somehow it’s better left on the album, its gorgeous production value begging to be left alone and not transformed into live performance. “It’s OK to Think about Ending,” a slow-motion, piano lined requiem, flows with references to taking care of your heart, advice that will be forever intertwined with the way Elliot Smith died.

Smith's final album, the recently released From a Basement on a Hill, is filled with thoughts about ending, from the fatalistic collection of song titles, “A Fond Farewell,” “Strung Out Again,” “The Last Hour,” to lyrics doused in the most tumultuous emotions he’s ever recorded. Not that I was surprised, since all of his albums share a common cloud of intimate depression. Because none of his fans really know him personally, we have no idea where it comes from, just like sometimes we have no idea where our own bouts with depression originate. There can be comfort found in mystery, unanswered questions, being satisfied with what gems of insight musicians offer within the between the bars.

Although “Mother” is soul-baring John Lennon at his best, none of his fans can presume to know what really happened between him and his parents. Meaningful clues as to why suicide took such visionary musicians as Kurt Cobain and Nick Drake can be found in the music, if you can handle looking closely enough. It may be difficult, but in Elliot Smith’s case, music was his outlet, and no matter how many stories surface about his lifelong haunt of child abuse, recurring drug addictions, the possibility that his death was no suicide, speculation can’t hold a candle to the raw emotions found in the lyrics of a song like “Memory Lane.” While absolutely gorgeous poetry on the surface, the two-and-a-half minute rant takes no mercy, penetrating below self-inflicted depression to a place where there is no way out, issuing a warning in the process, “If it’s your decision to be open about yourself / be careful, or else.”

Regardless of whether this lyric was self-reflexive, the echo of “be careful, or else,” lingers as we continue on, inspired by Smith, a musician ahead of his time, a poet, an unintentional troubled therapist, a master of isolation who wound up touching many people, some of whom will listen to his warning, “be careful, or else,” and disregard it with respect, because they know that being open about yourself is the only way genuine art is created, the only way you make a mark on lives other than your own. For bands like Earlimart, aspiring writers like me, or other musicians, writers, and artists influenced by Smith, this decision has already been made. Perhaps we had no choice in the first place. Whatever “be careful, or else” has in store, only time will tell, but I'm ready to find out.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home