The Only Shit That's Left Behind - Either/Or turns 20

The first time I bought a copy of Either/Or was either at the end of 2003, or beginning of 2004. Elliott Smith had just died months earlier, and while I hadn’t gotten in to his music while he was alive, I was desperately going out of my way to do so now in the wake of his passing—partially out of curiosity, but mostly because a girl I liked at the time was into him.

Over my holiday break from college, I bought a CD copy of Either/Or from the Sam Goody that had opened up (and would eventually close) in my hometown. And, yes, sure, I listened to it off and on, but this original attempt to get into Elliott Smith didn’t take; I was doing it for the wrong reasons.

The second time I bought a copy of Either/Or was at the beginning of 2011—a copy on vinyl I ordered from an Amazon marketplace seller. Back in 2010, I used to host an hour-long radio program, and in an effort to find more music to incorporate into my show, I started dabbling more into Smith’s music and reading about his life. As 2010 ended and a new year began, he was one artist that I found myself listening to more and more—the soundtrack for what was a very drawn out downward slide into a serious depression that has lasted for years.

If you are to ask a Smith fan what album of his is their favorite, most will probably say either XO or Either/Or. You kind of can’t have one without the other. One represents what he was able to accomplish with major label money backing him; the other represents an attempt to shed where he had come from and what he wanted to do next. There’s a stark contrast in sonics between Either/Or and Smith’s 1995 self-titled album. They are both “lo-fi,” but he’s beginning to experiment with larger arrangements on Either/Or—it’s a pivotal turning point for his career, showing where he came from, and where he wanted to go.

Like all things, Either/Or is now twenty years old. It’s album artwork is iconic—Smith showing off his Ferdinand The Bull tattoo, leaning against a mirror filled with graffiti; and it contains some of his best loved, most enduring songs, including the devastating “Between The Bars,” and the album’s epilogue, “Say Yes.”

In an attempt to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the album, Smith’s label at the time, Kill Rock Stars, has remastered and reissued it, complete with the obligatory disc of extra material; however, the label has already played its hand, twice, with things it could have included in this set.

In 2007, rather than issue a 10th anniversary edition, they opted to release the posthumous odds and ends collection New Moon, which featured a staggering 11 songs that were recorded during the Either/Or sessions; and, in 2012, the label issued a digital EP of four alternate versions to songs from the album.

In this collection, included in the additional ephemera are five live tracks, an alternate version of the XO track “Bottle Up and Explode!,” and two unreleased tracks including the much sought after rarity “I Figured You Out.”

The idea of remastering an album like Either/Or is enough to give me a minor case of the howling fantods. Part of its enduring charm is just how raw and lo-fi it sounds; that’s, you know, the point of the record. So upon the announcement of this commemorative set, I was concerned that someone was just going to remix it so it was louder than the original LP—which, truthfully, is kind of what has happened.

The new mix of Either/Or is not a revelation, and I guess it doesn’t tout itself that way either. There is slightly more depth to the tracks in a number of places—the bass resonates noticeably more on “Alameda,” for example, and the percussion on “Pictures of Me” sounds a lot crisper.

And in simply just turning up the overall volume a few notches, there are some idiosyncrasies that reveal themselves, including amp fuzz at various points that you probably wouldn’t have noticed before.

It seems worth noting, at this point, because I wasn’t 100% sold on the idea of this remaster and reissue, I did not pre-order a physical copy of it; instead I opted to download it to see if it was worth owning two copies of this album. And maybe this an issue that does not effect the physical editions of Either/Or, but to my ears, there is an underlying bit of tinny distortion that pops up here and there throughout the first four songs, as well as in “Say Yes,” in both the version streaming on the Kill Rock Stars Bandcamp page and the version available to download from iTunes.

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Outside of its charming aesthetics, the thing that makes Either/Or such an important album in Smith’s canon is his ability to balance the juxtaposition of the fragile and the volatile, all while exploring the spaces in between, as well as his ability to create evocative imagery within his lyrics—“Rose Parade,” itself is so descriptive and vivid it plays out like a short story.

Coming from both the whisper quiet, strummed acoustic guitar songs from his self-titled album and his skeletal debut, Roman Candle, as well as his dabbling in the more aggressive grunge sounds of his former band Heatmiser, topped with his interest in pushing things into a more kaleidoscopic, Beatle-esq pop avenue, Either/Or could have come out sounding like a hot mess. It is a credit to how intelligent Smith was as a songwriter that it didn’t, and even though it isn’t a perfect album, he was able to find a way to blend all of those sounds together to make something halfway cohesive.

His multi-tracked, spidery thin, hushed vocals were an early trademark, and there’s no shortage here: opening with the palpable tension of “Speed Trials,” moving into the devastation of “Between The Bars,” the pensive centerpiece “No Name No. 5,” and into slightly more ominous, stark territory with “Angeles” and “2:45 a.m.”

Smith never “raises his voice,” per se, but by Either/Or, he’s learned when to channel his angst vocally—you can hear the strain, bitter snarl, and accusatory tones in “Ballad of A Big Nothing,” “Pictures of Me,” and in the album’s most Heastmiser-esq song, the angry “Cupid’s Trick.”

Things moved quickly for Smith following the release of Either/or in February of 1997; by year’s end, his songs were tapped for the soundtrack to Good Will Hunting, including “Miss Misery,” which was nominated for an Academy Award. A mere eighteen months after Either/Or’s release, Smith was issuing his major label debut, inking a deal with the still fledgling Dreamworks Records for XO—an effort where he could finally shed the “lo-fi” trappings of his early work and layer track after track of instrumentation in each song.

As an album, it also, more than anything I suppose, represents a time he could never get back to, both as a performer and as a person. He was no longer Portland’s little secret, and, always apprehensive about fame, he soon pushed away his close circle of friends in the years to come.

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A notoriously volatile and unpredictable live performer, the five live songs included in the expanded edition of Either/Or are pulled from Smith’s set at Olympia’s Yo Yo A Go Go festival in 1997. Comprised of three album tracks, one b-side, and the previously unreleased song “My New Freedom.” The songs find Smith performing solo, showing his proficiency on the acoustic guitar, only speaking to the audience after “Some Song,” and instead, focusing on the music—his voice, missing that studio multi-tracked effect, is still raw and fragile, but in this presentation, is incredibly human too, especially in the recording of the briskly paced “Angeles.”

Contrasted with the remastered b-side “I Don’t Think I’m Ever Gonna Figure It Out” is probably the last unreleased rarity from this time period, “Figured You Out,” a song cut from the album and given to Mary Lou Lord because he apparently thought it sounded like “the fucking Eagles.” I guess I don’t really understand what that means—but, much like reading David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published works The Pale King and Both Flesh and Not, I’m left with a little bit of sadness because how much more unreleased/unearthed material is sitting around, and how much of it will ever see the light of day?

The song itself is structured around a bit of a clunky, chugging swoon, and in comparison to the rest of the material from Either/Or—both the twelve songs that actually made the cut on the album, as well as the other songs recorded from the sessions, I stop short of saying it sounds out of place, but there’s slightly more development to it. Perhaps it has something to do with the electric guitar and the appearance of the squeezebox. Lyrically, it takes on the same accusatory tone as many of Smith’s songs from throughout this period in his career.

The expanded edition of Either/Or ends with an early recording of “Bottle Up and Explode!,” a song that turns up on XO. Here, it’s still in its earliest forms—lacking Jon Brion’s Chamberlin work; instead, you get a chintzy sounding synthesizer that doesn’t do the song any justice, and, as other reviews have pointed out, you see just how much thought and work Smith put into his major label debut’s sonic landscape.

The problem with the “odds and ends” disc of a reissue is just how thrown together it usually feels, and there in lies the rub with the second disc of the Either/Or reissue. Yes, the live songs are interesting to hear and are of excellent recording quality, and yes, hearing a rare song like “Figured You Out” makes this whole thing worth any real fan’s time, but overall, it’s a little underwhelming when the thing concludes with a rather thin sounding early version, as well as including a piss take snippet of “New Monkey” performed on a whimsical sounding organ.

For the Elliott Smith completest, hearing the new mix of Either/Or at least once is probably worth the investment, but chances are you will be so married to the original, this won’t change much for you. For the casual Smith fan, this is a great album to start with as far as delving into his entire canon, and truthfully, the changes in a mix probably won’t matter much to you.

Smith didn’t live to see Either/Or even turn ten years old. He didn’t live to see any of his solo albums celebrate any kind of milestone anniversaries. But his music lives on and the fact that we are still talking about this record specifically, twenty years later, is a testament to just how important it was to both him as a performer and to its listeners.

The 'expanded edition' of Either/Or is out now, via Kill Rock Stars.