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Elliott Smith

From a Basement on the Hill

[Anti] ****

"From a Basement on the Hill" hit the streets a few weeks ago, but it has taken me this long to get my head around the thing - and not just because this is Elliott Smith's final album, the one he'd just about finished before he died in October 2003 from mysterious stab wounds.

This disc demanded to be separated from postdeath hindsight, which required some 40 listenings. Ultimately, "Basement" should be measured not as the record Smith made over the course of the year leading up to his death but as the next album in his personal ouevre. That's tricky if Smith's music meant something to you before his bizarre death and has continued to mean something following it.

"Basement" is the greatest work of Smith's all-too-brief career. He managed to make his own version of what, by all accounts, was his favorite album, the Beatles' white album.

Available in double-vinyl and single-CD formats, "Basement" is more dense than any previous Smith record.It is more ambitious, more actualized and, ultimately, more heartbreaking - which is saying something, considering Smith has long been known as the king of gorgeously layered bummer pop. He started with the stripped-down, disturbingly intimate "Roman Candle" and "Elliott Smith" albums, moved to the lush melodic pop of "XO" and "Figure 8" and finally, apparently disgusted with it all, blended them all into one, adding some brilliant soundscapes, gritty guitars and obfuscating discord for his swan song.

This is less a collection of individual pieces - though they stand up well as such - and more a continuous piece of music represented in movements with an artistically sound but emotionally disturbing arc connecting it all. It's brilliant. And it would be brilliant even if Smith hadn't died just as the recording was finally wrapping up. Losing Smith creates a tangible hole in the rock landscape. "Basement" is a temporary balm.

- Jeff Miers


Wynton Marsalis

Unforgivable Blackness: Soundtrack

[Blue Note] ***

Accident? Or confrontational chutzpah? You decide. Once upon a time, Miles Davis' first extraordinary steps into his own inimitable kind of fusion began with soundtrack music to a film about Jack Johnson, the great black heavyweight champion and all-time specimen victim of racism, American style. And now we've got Wynton Marsalis, the denigrator-in-chief of Milesian fusion, composing music for "Unforgivable Blackness," Ken Burns' ambitious documentary film about "the rise and fall of Jack Johnson."

Wynton Marsalis still can't compose a melody that anyone else would want to play. And he's beholden to Ellingtonian textures and New Orleans tradition in a way that isn't always inventive. For all that, he is an absolute unquestioned master of pastiche and a jazz professional of almost hair-raising proficiency. What's great about Wynton as soundtrack composer is that - professional that he is - he's clearly serving nothing but the film here. The result, paradoxically, takes enough creative pressure off him to make this a fascinating Wynton disc.

- Jeff Simon


Various Artists

Doctors, Professors, Kings and Queens: The Big Ol' Box of New Orleans

[Shout! Factory] ***

You can't put Mardi Gras in a box; you can't just tell us to add ears, sweat, booze, spicy food and unclean thoughts and voila! Mardi Gras. If you could, though, this orgiastic four-disc collection of New Orleans music would come as close to Mardi Gras Helper as anything in a box.

On one hand, it's respectable enough to be digested as In-Flight music programming on United Airlines. On the other, it's funky and so inclusive that along with Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton, Professor Longhair, Dave Bartholomew and The Meters, you also get '60s one-hit-wonder Ernie K-Doe ("Mother in Law") and such obscurities as The Percolators, Tuba Fats' Chosen Few Brass Band, Gene Delaforse and even lesser-knowns. (Would you believe the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars?) And in the insert 80-page book you can even find out what to order at the Harbor Restaurant on Daupine St. (the banana pudding. It's famous.)

The quality of the music, to understate, varies insanely. But the whole point of this steaming, fanny-moving aural gumbo is a total gooey immersion in the primal city of American vernacular music (which was, perhaps, the first city on earth where the world would get a chance to see what an authentically Third World culture would look like.)

Unfailingly great music? Not even close. Foolproof fun? You bet.

- Jeff Simon


Dawn Upshaw

Voices of Light

With Gilbert Kalish, piano

[Nonesuch] ****

Dawn Upshaw, who will be coming to Buffalo in February to perform with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, has a soprano voice that's incredibly pure and clear. She gives a languid, sensual feeling here to a wide selection of misty French songs, which includes Messiaen, Debussy and Faure.

Upshaw's a pro at this music - her Debussy album is a delight - but this album pushes her into a higher plane. Faure's "La Chanson D'Eve" is especially lovely; Upshaw's sweet, sustained tones bring the lyrics of roses and paradise to beautiful life. The songs by Messiaen are especially enchanting. "The Necklace" is a love song, delicate as a cloud, but the highlight is "Resurrection" - a kind of outburst of ecstasy, with high-flying Alleluias that seem to take their cue from the Middle Ages, and a piano accompaniment that suggests trumpets.

- Mary Kunz


Neko Case

The Tigers Have Spoken

[Anti] *** 1/2

The prospect of a live album from Neko Case is a mouthwatering one; Case is revered by fans of her three solo albums and her work with the New Pornographers, and those fans know that it's in the live format that Case truly shines. "The Tigers Have Spoken" delivers on that promise and then some, adding new tunes and choice covers to the equation, and with the exception of one song, avoiding material available elsewhere in its studio format.

Case is essentially an alt-country artist, but how easily she transcends such narrow terminology, casually and off-handedly blending '50s and '60s country with a touch of the punk ethos she practiced with a handful of Vancouver bands, mixing it all together with a sorcerer's skill. She covers Buffy St. Marie's "Soulful Shade of Blue" with reverence, the warm, reverb-laden live mix lending to the tune's grandeur. Significantly, she treats alternative greats Freakwater to the same reverence, covering their gorgeous "Hex" with tenderness, backing vocalist Kelly Hogan adding abundantly to the goosebump factor.

The Shangri-La's "Train From Kansas City" gets a face-lift courtesy of Case's backing band, Toronto's brilliant Sadies, as the twin guitars of brothers Dallas and Travis Good churn, chug and then explode into repose during the song's chorus.

This sounds effortless, but don't be fooled; there is a consummate level of skill at work here. Call it our generation's torch 'n' twang, then.

- Jeff Miers